Supporters cheer on Bunning in Casey County

October 31, 2004|TODD KLEFFMAN

LIBERTY - U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning made an energetic campaign stop Friday in devoutly Republican Casey County, asking supporters for a big turnout to help him defeat Democratic challenger Dr. Dan Mongiardo in what Bunning admitted will be a close race.

Perhaps buoyed by the friendly crowd of about 100 that gathered outside the Casey County Courthouse, Bunning appeared strong, even fiery at times, as he hammered home his link to President George W. Bush and hit on traditional conservative themes meant to inspire the faithful to go to the polls Tuesday.

"As I drove down here, every time I saw a Bush sign, I saw a Bunning sign. Where I saw a Kerry sign, I saw my opponent's sign. That tells you something," Bunning said. "You have a clear choice on Tuesday. You can vote Bush, Bunning and (incumbent 1st District Congressman Ed) Whitfield, or you can vote Kerry and others."


Chad Owen, pastor of New Testament Baptist Church in Liberty, said Bunning's anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage messages were what he came to hear.

"I was very impressed with his stance on pro-life and civil union issues," said Owen, 32. "That's where my vote starts. His morals are more important to me than money issues."

Owen also said he saw no evidence of the charges of physical and mental failings that have dogged Bunning as the campaign has tightened and turned increasingly ugly in recent weeks.

"He seemed very competent, in his right mind, like he knew what he stands for and what he believes in," Owen said. "I don't believe your values change with age anyway."

Making light of illness allegations

Bunning, 73, made light of the allegations that he might be suffering from dementia or other ailments that could render him unable to serve if he is re-elected to another six-year term.

"This is my 23rd stop and, can you believe it, I'm still walking and talking and chewing gum at the same time," Bunning said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

For his part, Bunning has come out of hiding in recent weeks, abandoning the strategy he used for months of avoiding the public and media, turning to an aggressive statewide bus tour designed in part to counteract questions about his fitness to serve.

In Liberty, Bunning displayed none of the missteps, alleged "bizarre behavior" or signs of infirmity that have shadowed him this election season. He worked almost the entire crowd before taking the podium, where he often gestured enthusiastically as he spoke of his experience in Washington and support for the president, especially on tax cuts and the war in Iraq.

"Is it ugly and messy? Yes. Is freedom free? No. You have to work for it. You have to pay for it with your blood and the blood of your children sometimes. It's not a pretty picture," Bunning told the crowd. "It's been costly, it's been expensive, but the American people have made the sacrifices that are necessary."

Along with Whitfield, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, also appeared Friday with Bunning.

Williams and other state Republicans raised eyebrows earlier on the tour by appearing to question Mongiardo's sexual orientation. Williams referred to the Hazard physician, a 44-year-old bachelor, as "limp-wristed" and "a switch hitter" at previous stops, including one earlier Friday in Hopkinsville, but did not repeat those comments in Liberty.

Mongiardo has said he is not gay.

Harsh words from McConnell

McConnell, who has stumped alongside his Senate colleague all week, leveled the harshest words against Mongiardo. Mentioning that Mongiardo brought in Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who opposed the tobacco buyout bill, to campaign for him, McConnell said, "They've raised the issue of the mental competency of one of the Senate candidates and I agree. Jim Bunning's opponent is not smart enough to be in the U.S. Senate."

McConnell also repeatedly mentioned Bush, underscoring the idea that Bunning needs all the help he can get from the top of the ticket. The state's senior senator mentioned prominent local GOP leaders by name - Raymond Overstreet, Betty Lou Weddle and Garland Hoskins - as he suggested Bunning needs a strong turnout in Republican bastions like Casey County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 8,330 to 2,103, to hold on to his seat.

"There is not a single, rational reason for anyone in Kentucky who votes for President Bush not to vote for Senator Bunning," McConnell said. "We're counting on a strong Republican county like this to run up the score. Run it up big. Beat them like a drum."

Hoskins, a former Liberty mayor and county judge-executive, predicted a lopsided victory for Bunning in Casey County and a healthier margin statewide than polls indicate.

"Bunning will carry this county real big, I'd venture to say 80 percent," Hoskins said. "I don't think the race is really that close across the state. I say he wins 55 percent to 45 percent."

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