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Obama's big win in N.C. and Clinton's narrow one in Indiana give Kentucky's primary anti-climactic air

Institiute Director Al Cross sent the following memo to Kentucky political journalists on the morning of Wednesday, May 7, 2008. (AP photo)

Last night’s results in North Carolina and Indiana leave Kentucky as the largest state yet to vote in the presidential primaries, with the Democratic nomination still undecided. Our state has never played such a role before, but it’s possible that the closest primary on our May 20 ballot will be for U.S. senator, not president.

So far, almost all the talk has been about the presidential race, and we can expect many visits by the candidates and their surrogates. But after yesterday’s results, Kentucky’s presidential primary already has an anticlimactic air about it. Nationally, more superdelegates remain at stake than regular delegates, and the candidates’ focus is shifting to them. Sen. Barack Obama may trot out some to endorse him today; Sen. Hillary Clinton has already started talking more about full seating of delegates from Florida and Michigan, which currently have none because they held primaries too early.

Clinton’s end-game strategy has called for her to gain the edge in total popular vote by racking up big margins in Kentucky, West Virginia (which votes next Tuesday) and Puerto Rico (which votes June 1). But Obama’s big margin in North Carolina makes that strategy less likely to succeed, and now Clinton supporters are pointing to the other state that votes May 20: Oregon.

“She needs to shake something up. . . . She has to win Oregon,” Clinton supporter James Carville, who has some experience in Kentucky, said on CNN this morning. “If she wins Oregon, she wins six out of the last seven primaries. Let’s see what happens to the popular vote in Kentucky, Puerto Rico and West Virginia.”

While polls show Clinton running far ahead of Obama in Kentucky, it does not appear likely that she will get the popular-vote margin she needs here, unless interest in the race increases greatly. Most other states have rolled up big increases in voter registration, particularly among Democrats, but Kentucky’s registration rose less than 0.6 percent since last year’s general election, about half as much as it did a year earlier. The number of Democrats rose little more than 0.8 percent. There is relatively little excitement for either Clinton or Obama in Kentucky, where Republican Sen. John McCain is beating both of them in general-election polls, Obama badly.

All that being said, Kentucky will not be ignored, and will probably play its most significant role ever in a Democratic nominating process. It was part of Super Tuesday in 1988, but Al Gore carried all but three counties and other candidates largely ignored the state, so the legislature abandoned the idea of an earlier presidential primary. The only time any Kentucky presidenti al primary made a difference was the Republican contest in 1976, when President Gerald Ford stopped challenger Ronald Reagan’s momentum by winning here and in Arkansas.

So what will the issues be in Kentucky? There’s no reason to expect that Clinton will not keep talking about the idea of a summer gasoline-tax holiday, because many rural Kentuckians commute to work in cities and are being squeezed by gas prices. Obama opposes the idea as a gimmick, and has already argued that it would slow road-building in the state. One other issue difference has evaporated, but the issue still deserves some attention. It’s mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal.

Obama told the anti-mountaintop-mining group Appalachian Voices in January, “Strip mining is an environmental disaster. We have to find more environment ally sound ways of mining co al than simply blowing the tops off mountains.” But in March, in Beckley, W.Va., in the heart of the Appalachian coalfield, he backed off: “My job as president, and one of the keys of feder al government, is to listen and work with local and state officials who are knowledgeable about these issues, whether it’s a governor, or a mayor, or senators, so that we can make this work properly. One thing I can promise you I won’t do, though, is I’m just going to take a bunch of contributions from the coal industry and then just do their bidding, any more than I would just listen to the environmentalists. I want to listen to everybody, get everybody’s point of view, and then make the best decision for the people of West Virginia.”

Clinton has also equivocated on the issue. She told The Courier-Journal in late March that if elected she would serve as a mediator to help find a compromise. “This is one of these areas where we've got to get everybody together and come up with some solutions,” she said. “I understand the argument that it's a cost-effective way to get at the coal, but I also understand and sympathize with the concerns people have about stream and river pollution, about the effects on the environment and the livelihoods of people who are in other walks of life in the economy. My administration would serve as a mediator and conciliatory presence in trying to figure out what we're going to do.”

It’s the job of Kentucky reporters not only to press the candidates for answers on issues like these, but to correct false information being spread about them, such as that Obama is a Muslim who doesn’t say the pledge of allegiance. He’s a practicing Christian who says the pledge. But Kentuckians would also like to hear him elaborate on his belief that small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances cling to religion and guns.

One huge factor in this race that many journ alists avoid exploring is race. Exit polls in states bordering Kentucky have made clear that Obama’s race is a disincentive or disqualifier for a sm all but significant slice of voters. Kentucky still has issues with race, as shown by the racist calls to the office of 6 th District Rep. Ben Chandler when he endorsed Obama. Journalists should explore this unfortunate fact of Kentucky’s political life, in interviews with voters and experts. My column last Sunday for The Courier-Journal addressed the subject. You can read it here.

The other statewide contest on the May 20 ballot also deserves attention, certainly more than it has been getting. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces only token Republican primary opposition as he seeks a record fifth term, but there is an increasingly competitive race for the Democratic nomination to oppose him. The candidates running full-scale campaigns are businessman and former state commerce secretary Bruce Lunsford, who ran for governor in the 2003 and 2007 primaries, and Greg Fischer, a Louisville businessman and political newcomer who says Lunsford has too much baggage to beat McConnell.

An automated telephone poll by Survey USA, conducted Saturday through Monday, May 3-5, showed Lunsford with 41 percent, Fischer with 22 percent, and five other candidates with a tot al of 32 percent, with 4 percent undecided. (Survey USA’s methods tend to underestimate undecideds.) Fischer has steadily gained on Lunsford, and Lunsford has lost ground, since mid-April. Survey USA is polling weekly for WHAS-TV in Louisville and WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 05/08/2008