FANCY FARM, Ky. -- First there was the obligatory handshake between Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, followed by the coin toss for their speaking order.
As it turned out, that was the last time the Senate minority leader acknowledged his opponent in their showdown at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, signaling the start of the fall campaign.
On a stage renowned for verbal jousting between Kentucky's top political rivals, the four-term Republican senator known for a bare-knuckled style was silent about his opponent.
Instead, McConnell brought the national debate on energy policy to Fancy Farm weekend. He declared high gas prices the country's biggest problem and denounced Democrats in Congress for blocking energy legislation he said would spur more oil production and more conservation.
"Democrats just need to get out of the way and let us get to work," he said.
Sitting a few feet away, Lunsford wasn't on the receiving end of McConnell barbs.
Lunsford, a newcomer to the Fancy Farm stage, showed no reluctance about ripping into McConnell. He characterized the top Senate Republican leader as the status quo candidate.
"It's time to get our country back on the right track," Lunsford said. "We can't do that by re-electing someone who wants more of the same. We need change now more than ever."
He even invoked Republican icon Ronald Reagan, asking the crowd if they were better off now than six years ago, when McConnell was elected to a fourth term.
"If not, I'm your guy," Luns-ford said.
Other Democrats joined in characterizing McConnell as standing in the way of change.
"Sen. McConnell has established himself as the chief obstructionist in Washington on policies that affect all Americans," State Auditor Crit Luallen said in an interview.
McConnell may have held back Saturday, but his campaign has been aggressive, running TV ads trying to link Lunsford with the state's gas tax. The ad says Lunsford had a role years ago in helping pass a law that has resulted in periodic increases in the state fuel tax.
Luallen acknowledged the ads put Lunsford on the defensive temporarily, saying that Lunsford must go on the offensive soon. Lunsford countered with his own ad pointing to newspaper editorials lambasting McConnell's commercial and saying the senator took big campaign donations from oil companies.