Bunning losing ground fast

By Mary Jacoby
Published October 14, 2004 12:28AM (EDT)

Sure, political campaigns are like horse races. But in politics, the difference is you can wait to see how the race is going before placing a bet. And so on Wednesday, amid a meltdown in Kentucky by incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, the national Democratic Party began pushing hard to find money for the suddenly surging Democratic challenger, Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, a state senator and surgeon from Hazard, Ky.

The Senate assistant minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the co-chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, held a conference call for major Democratic Party donors to urge them to take a second look at this political Kentucky Derby, where Mongiardo was previously written off as having little chance in the staunchly conservative state.

But Mongiardo has proved an unexpectedly skillful campaigner, while Bunning has been behaving so bizarrely as to fuel speculation that he is suffering from some sort of undisclosed medical condition. He's stalked away from news interviews, likened the dark-complexioned Mongiardo to one of Saddam Hussein's sons, freaked-out Louisville civic leaders by stating falsely that they'd lost federal funding for a bridge, engaged in verbal fisticuffs with a Republican Navy veteran at a Rotary Club and requested extra security because, as he warned a Paduch television station: "There may be strangers among us." Bunning has declined to release his medical records, although he did offer up letters from his physicians describing his blood pressure (normal at 134/82) and his cholesterol level (a healthy 161).

Moreover, Bunning has virtually stopped taking questions in public and has instead limited himself to reading, briefly and woodenly, from short, prepared texts. He would agree to only one debate with Mongiardo. But he insisted that the debate be pre-recorded without an audience present and that his challenger promise not use video footage of Bunning's performance in any television ads.

Then, on Monday, Bunning balked at even that. He refused to show up in Kentucky for the debate, instead "appearing" via satellite from the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington. He also refused to allow a neutral third-party observer in the studio to monitor whether he was receiving assistance with his answers. On Tuesday, when I wrote in Salon about Bunning's maneuver, Kentucky's main talk-radio station, WHAS, went wild, interviewing me three times in a continuous loop of speculation about Bunning's health.

After the debate, Bunning campaign manager David Young admitted to reporters that Bunning had used a teleprompter in his opening and closing statements. The Mongiardo campaign accused the senator of violating rules that limited participants to the use of "notes," and the news director at WKYT-TV in Lexington, which hosted the debate, called the Bunning's sneaky conduct "despicable."

Bunning only fueled the uproar by claiming that Mongiardo staffers had roughed up his wife at a political event back in August called Fancy Farm. "If anything would get me mad or get me a little upset, would be someone trying to abuse my wife," Bunning told reporters in a post-debate conference call, charging that Mary Bunning had been left "black and blue" from the alleged encounter.

Mongiardo campaign manager Kim Geveden denied that anything of the sort had happened. "It's really sad that the senator is making another outlandish, false allegation. But it's been consistent with him and his campaign," Geveden told me by phone from Kentucky. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran an editorial Wednesday headlined, "What's Wrong With Bunning?"

Meantime, Mongiardo campaign polling shows that Bunning's lead, once 24 points, is down to six. In a memo, pollster Fred Yang ascribed the incumbent's lead to greater name recognition. (Bunning, a former major league baseball player and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is recognized by 83 percent of Kentucky voters compared with 55 percent for Mongiardo, the poll found). But among voters who had knowledge of both candidates, the Democrat led 56 percent to Bunning's 38 percent. A hefty 14 percent of voters were undecided, the Oct 6-7 survey found.

These numbers -- and Bunning's missteps -- are what the Democrats in Washington find encouraging. The DSCC, the campaign arm of the Senate Democrats, has pumped some $150,000 into the race since Tuesday. A victory in Kentucky could help Democrats win back control of the closely divided Senate.

"We've got a great candidate in Dr. Mongiardo," said DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse, who called Kentucky the "sleeper" race of the year for Democrats. "And Sen. Bunning has all but come unhinged.

Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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