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Kentucky Gubernatorial Race Is Test for Bush on Economy

By James Dao
The New York Times

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, Aug. 13 -- Improbable as it sounds, the first major test of President Bush's vulnerability on the weak economy may come this November in a state that he won handily in 2000, where his favorable ratings are still high and where Republicans hold seven of eight Congressional seats.

No one said Kentucky politics was predictable.

With a tenacity that has surprised his opponent and some supporters, the Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Ben Chandler, has attacked Mr. Bush's stewardship of the economy, contending that Republican policies have drained Kentucky of 56,000 jobs, aided the wealthy at the expense of the poor and helped drill a gaping hole in the state budget.

"It's hard to believe that just three years ago, Kentucky had a surplus, had an economy that was growing," Mr. Chandler, 43, said Monday at a campaign event outside a shuttered I.B.M. plant in Lexington. "What has changed is the team in charge in Washington. And my opponent is in the starting lineup."

He has mocked his Republican opponent, Representative Ernie Fletcher, as "the job terminator." He jokes that Mr. Fletcher's motto is "leave no job behind," a jab at President Bush's vow to "leave no child behind."

The state Democratic Party has even created a Web site featuring a comic-strip depiction of an evil emperor -- President Bush -- conspiring with Mr. Fletcher to wreck the economy.

With his scathing attacks on the White House, Mr. Chandler has turned Kentucky, which has voted with the winner in every presidential election since 1964, into a closely watched bellwether of the 2004 presidential campaign, analysts say.

If Mr. Chandler, considered the underdog, can ride voters' anxieties about unemployment to victory, it could give the Democrats momentum in their seemingly uphill quest to unseat the president, Democrats and political analysts assert.

"He has a powerful message," said Nicole Harburger, spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. "I would not be surprised if the economy and unemployment become the seminal issues in many campaigns."

Kentucky Republicans seem bemused by the attacks, deriding Mr. Chandler as a "guinea pig" for national Democratic strategists. If anything, they have wrapped themselves tighter around the president, who has a 70 percent favorable rating in Kentucky, according to their polls.

"If they'd like to run against President Bush," said Senator Mitch McConnell, the state's most powerful Republican and a mentor to Mr. Fletcher, "I question whether they are smart enough to take over the job."

Still, Mr. Chandler's assault seems to have put Mr. Fletcher on the defensive. In campaign events, he acknowledges that Kentucky's economy is struggling and that job creation should be among the new governor's top priorities.

But Mr. Fletcher places the blame on the Democratic governor, Paul E. Patton, who because of term limits must leave office at the end of the year. And Mr. Fletcher has made Democratic longevity in the governor's mansion -- there has not been a Republican governor in 32 years -- his central campaign theme.

"Ben talks about change," Mr. Fletcher, 50, said in a debate in Louisville on Tuesday. "The biggest change he wants is to move his desk 100 feet."

Mr. Patton casts a broad shadow over the race in another way: his administration has been racked by scandal.

Last September, the governor admitted having a two-year affair with a Kentucky businesswoman, reversing his earlier denials. The woman, Tina Conner, was indicted in July on federal charges that she used false information to apply for state highway contracts. She has pleaded not guilty and has sued Mr. Patton, contending that he pressured state officials to help her during the affair, then harassed her after she broke it off. He denies both assertions.

More indictments are considered likely, and the trial is set for October, just weeks before the election.

In June, Mr. Patton also pardoned two top aides and two union officials who had been indicted on charges of violating state campaign finance laws in 1995. The charges were brought by Mr. Chandler, who angrily called on the governor to resign when the pardons were announced.

What is more, the state auditor said this month that more than 200 computers in the state's transportation agency had been used to search for pornographic Web sites. The F.B.I. has joined an investigation into the matter.

Mr. Chandler has tried to distance himself from Mr. Patton, calling himself a "maverick" who had angered the Democratic establishment by indicting the governor's aides. But Republicans are not letting him off the hook.

"We have the most scandal-ridden, embarrassing administration we've had in years," Mr. Fletcher said in an interview. "To have him sitting in the middle of it as the chief law enforcement officer, it's going to be impossible for him to dissociate himself from it."

Despite Mr. Chandler's attacks on the president's policies, the prescriptions he offers for reviving the economy do not differ markedly from those of Mr. Fletcher.

Mr. Chandler generally supports tax cuts, though he says he would give more relief to lower income families. Both men have endorsed tax breaks to encourage job creation and programs to retrain displaced workers. Neither has issued a detailed plan for closing a projected $274 million state budget shortfall, beyond trimming the state work force and cutting "waste and fraud."

They do differ on the issue of gambling. Mr. Chandler has called for allowing slot machines in racetracks to generate revenue for schools. Mr. Fletcher has said he opposes gambling, but would be willing to hold a referendum on the issue.

Mr. Chandler, a former state auditor, learned about politics at the knee of his grandfather, A. B. (Happy) Chandler, a former governor and commissioner of baseball who epitomized a back-slapping Kentucky style of charisma. Mr. Fletcher, a former practicing physician and fighter pilot, is more reserved and formal, though he shows flashes of an acerbic wit.

Their contrasting styles were evident Monday night at a political picnic at Red's Fish House, a popular Owensboro restaurant. Mr. Chandler, sweating and garrulous, pumped hands and grabbed shoulders with the vigor of a masseur. Mr. Fletcher, stiff and cerebral, talked quietly with supporters and at times found himself standing alone.

At Red's, some Democrats expressed concerns that Mr. Chandler's attacks on the president could alienate conservative Democrats.

But many Democrats at Red's also said they thought Mr. Chandler -- who barely survived a bruising primary and is running several points behind Mr. Fletcher in public polls -- had few alternatives.

"What else do you have?" asked Wendell H. Ford, a former Democratic senator. "The only record the opponent has is in Congress."

Meanwhile, Republicans seem energized by the opportunity to retake the governor's office. The White House has dispatched the presidential political strategist Karl Rove, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and a Bush brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, to appear at fund-raisers for Mr. Fletcher.

Asked if he expected the president himself to campaign for him, Mr. Fletcher said, "I sure hope so." Mr. Chandler said he would also welcome a visit by Mr. Bush.

"We'll ask him if he brought along any jobs," Mr. Chandler said.

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