Kentucky as bellwether for Bush's job policies

Tuesday's vote could elect a Republican for first time in 32 years - and be a barometer of '04.

This sparsely settled valley around Burtonville in the rumpled hills of northeastern Kentucky is about as far from Washington and Wall Street as you can get. Yet people here do keep an eye on the national economy. For good reason.

Once there were four stores in town. Now Charles Hardymon's garage is now the only one open. True, there is a restaurant among the whitewashed buildings that pass for Burtonville's Main Street. But it's open by appointment only: In other words, you have to order the restaurant before you order your food. Overall, unemployment in Lewis County - named after Meriwether Lewis - hovers near 20 percent.

The perceptions of how much this community, and hundreds like it across Kentucky, are tied to the US economy - and how well that economy is doing - may help determine who wins a crucial governor's race here Tuesday.

The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Ben Chandler, blames what he considers the failed economic policies of the Bush administration for hardship in places like Burtonville. His opponent, US Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), not only supports the president's stewardship; he prides himself on being "Bush's man" on Capitol Hill. As a result, the governor's race here is shaping up as the most telling bellwether yet on whether Democrats might exploit Mr. Bush's handling of the economy in 2004.

"This race is about whether Chandler is going to be successful in making this a national economic referendum," says Joe Gershtenson, director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics in Richmond.

To be sure, there are local issues that will help determine if Republicans, trying to pick up governorships here and in Mississippi Tuesday, will continue a realignment of the South.

This being Kentucky, after all, personality, history, and lineage often mean as much as issues, and there's plenty of all three in this year's battle. Mr. Chandler has won statewide elections three times, and his family's political roots go back 100 years. His grandfather, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, was governor in the 1930s and later in the 1950s.

Yet Mr. Fletcher is formidable, too. A doctor and a pilot, the three-term congressman has decried ethical lapses of the Democratic administration in Frankfort. Though Chandler hasn't been tarred in the scandals - and, in fact, has done some of the prosecuting - his affiliation with the party in power hasn't helped.

"Issues mean less in Kentucky than any other state," says one longtime political observer who knows both men. "People here vote on the basis of personality and relationships and family."

So far, Fletcher is doing well: He's up by nine points with a widening lead, and many analysts expect him to take back the governorship after 32 years of Democratic control.

The Mississippi race is closer, deadlocked between Republican Haley Barbour and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D). Republicans may be poised for another victory in Louisiana, where Lieut. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) lags behind Republican Bobby Jindal in a race set for Nov. 15

The Kentucky candidates are relatively close on the issues. Both want better roads and bridges. Both want to deflate ballooning healthcare costs. Both tout legalized gambling to pay for education. But they promote different drug-benefit plans: Chandler has proposed importing more pharmaceuticals from Canada.

Gauging just how the dynamic of the national economy will play out here is a difficult task. On the one hand, Chandler has clearly tapped into Democratic discontent with Bush, and how he does at the polls will depend in part on whether party stalwarts turn out to vote Tuesday.

Yet Bush is still more popular in Kentucky than in most of the nation. He won by 16 percentage points here in 2000, and his Saturday swing through Kentucky and Mississippi could sway both teetering Democrats and undecided voters. Further confusing Chandler's message is last week's report of a 7.2 percent GDP growth - the best since 1984. Indeed, in the past few weeks, Chandler has talked less about the frailty of the economy, more about "putting Kentucky first."

Standing amid the horse estates of central Kentucky, Tom Vinton Jr., has a pragmatic approach: "Ben [Chandler] is a tough monkey who wants to get things done right. But what I'm looking for is someone who will help me get my teeth fixed."

His friend Bud Atkins, leaning against his truck, says Chandler has done right by criticizing Bush's economic policies. Fletcher, he says, "is a liar just like Bush," who'd support trickle-down policies that he says have ruined thousands of jobs here.

Yet some segments of the economy are doing well here, diminishing the impact of Chandler's message.

In the Lewis valley, for instance, the biggest business is home construction, with five contractors headquartered here. Farming and logging still dominate. Even Democrats who "watch Wall Street, but don't play" note that the national economy today is, at best, a paradox.

Yet other voters think what's needed is not just economic change - but a change of party and vision in Frankfort. Steve Muse, Frank Miller Jr., and David Biddle are unloading tobacco leaves in one of the barns that dominate the hills near Blue Lick. Though the sign on their barn says "Chandler," they say they're voting for Fletcher.

They buy the idea that it's not national Republicans, but Kentucky Democrats, who failed to take advantage of a hot economy in the 1990s, and haven't stopped the slide of jobs.

As they pack the pungent leaf into tight bales, the men say only a Republican could make enough of an institutional change. It doesn't hurt that Fletcher seems to be behind tobacco farmers, supporting a federal buy-out plan.

At least, they say, a Republican governor would be a novelty. "I've never seen one elected in my lifetime," says Mr. Miller.

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