Political heat turned up at Ky. picnic

Monday, July 28, 2008

FANCY FARM, Ky. -- Barbecue and bingo are big draws, but adding more zest to this year's Fancy Farm Picnic will be the first showdown between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford -- letting voters size up the adversaries side by side in the summer heat.

The picnic in western Kentucky offers the fellowship of games and food in a relaxed setting. There's a more raucous side to the storied event -- as the state's premier political spectacle.

As such, the reunion won't be sociable when McConnell and Lunsford will share the stage Saturday for the first time in the campaign to trade barbs likely as spicy as the barbecue pork and mutton on the menu.

Organizers were still waiting word on whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain might show up, which would add the zing of a presidential campaign to an event usually limited to Kentucky politics.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend this year's 128th picnic in Graves County, where they'll dig into heaping servings of barbecue pork and mutton, plus plenty of fixins' and homemade pies.

The picnic is a fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church and parish.

For political junkies, the main course will be the round of political speeches, sometimes backed by theatrics and spiced by cheering or jeering from the audience.

The picnic is a must-attend event for prominent Kentucky politicians, or those aspiring for such status.

"It really is the closest thing we get to hand-to-hand combat between statewide candidates," said Al Cross, a former longtime political writer for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky. "There's a certain sense of being tested in the crucible up there on that platform."

After losses in two gubernatorial primaries, Lunsford will get his time at the podium as a Democratic nominee. He'll be matched against a seasoned politician in McConnell, a fixture at the picnic.

"Our campaign to bring change to Washington is energized and excited to participate in this remarkable tradition," said Luns¿ford, vowing to hold McConnell "accountable for his loyalty" to big oil companies.

McConnell campaign adviser Scott Jennings said the four-term senator looks forward to the picnic. Like football coaches prepping for a big game, politicians often are reluctant to discuss their strategy.

"Fancy Farm often serves as a stage to reiterate key messages that a campaign might use in the fall election," Jennings said. "Of course, it's also a good place to head fake an opponent."

Meanwhile, picnic organizers have worked to tone down rowdy partisans, some bused from elsewhere in Kentucky. But they don't expect the spectators to put on their Sunday-best behavior.

"That's all right if they want to do a little bit of whooping and hollering, but just don't get to the point of drowning out the speakers," said Mark Wilson, an organizer of the political speaking at the picnic. "You have a lot of people who come in and actually want to hear what they have to say."

This year's master of ceremonies will be state House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook.

Expected to join McConnell and Lunsford on stage will be other prominent officeholders or political candidates, including Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning plans to attend to support McConnell. Bunning previously said he might never show up again at the picnic after claiming he and his wife were pushed and shoved by supporters of a political opponent in 2004.

Actor Sonny Landham, who is seeking McConnell's seat as a Libertarian, plans to attend but was denied a speaking role. Wilson said it's customary to reserve speaking times only for Republicans and Democrats.

For those given a speaking role, a strong performance can help generate momentum for the fall.

"You've got to have snappers ready, not just your standard speechmaking," said Cross, now director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

A flop or uneven showing can knock a candidate on his heels.

In 1998, Republicans turned snippets of Scotty Baesler's frenzied Fancy Farm speech into an ad portraying the usually mild-mannered Democrat as out of control. Baesler narrowly lost that year's Senate race to Bunning.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: