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President Bush has decided against making a campaign visit for Kentucky state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) in next month’s special House election, according to knowledgeable GOP sources.

The lack of a personal visit could be a blow to Kerr, who has cast her race against former state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) as a referendum on the president.

“When Ben was looking at the race there was a lot of bluster coming from Republicans about White House involvement and potential presidential visits,” said Chandler spokesman Jason Sauer. “It looks like they were bluffing or they have lost confidence in their chances of victory.”

Democrats believe that Bush’s decision signals a fear among his campaign operatives that if Kerr loses the race it could reflect poorly on him as he begins to rev up his re-election campaign.

One senior Kentucky Republican said that Bush’s decision had nothing to do with the potentially negative association if Kerr lost but rather was based on an inability by the Kerr campaign to pay the entire bill for the various overhead costs of a presidential visit.

Because the 6th district race will be the only contest on the ballot Feb. 17, the Kerr campaign would be unable to share any of the costs of the visit with other candidates seeking office. The expenditure required would be too weighty for a candidate spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ongoing ad campaign and other get-out-the-vote efforts, the source said.

National Republicans argued that even without a Bush visit the race remains a choice between electing a candidate who will support Bush and one who will oppose him.

“This is not a referendum on the president himself but on the kind of leadership people in Kentucky want,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti.

The Lexington-based 6th district would have given Bush 55 percent of the vote in the 2000 election and has been trending Republican over the past decade.

While Bush and his surrogates have emphasized that he does not want a lonely victory in 2004, they have also made it clear that their first priority is re-electing the president.

In 2002, Bush barnstormed the country in the campaign’s final days and was largely credited with delivering control of the Senate back to Republicans and helping his party pick up six seats in the House.

Republicans enter this election year as heavy favorites to hold their House majority, and, given the makeup of the Senate playing field with five open Democratic seats in the South, are seen as likely to keep control of the chamber as well.

Bush raised $130 million for his presidential effort through Dec. 31 and has raised money for the GOP campaign committees but has done only one fundraiser for a federal candidate other than himself so far this cycle.

He traveled to Missouri in September to raise roughly $1 million for Sen. Kit Bond (R), who faces a challenge from state Treasurer Nancy Farmer (D) in the Show Me State.

Bush campaigned with successful 2003 gubernatorial candidates, including Haley Barbour in Mississippi and former Rep. Ernie Fletcher in Kentucky, both of whom won Democratic-held seats last November. Fletcher resigned from Congress after being sworn in, creating the necessity for a special election to replace him.

A spokesman for the Bush campaign did not return a call for comment.

Vice President Cheney has been significantly more active on the fundraising front, appearing at events for endangered Republican Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Anne Northup (Ky.) and Mike Rogers (Ala.) among others so far this cycle. He has also raised money for GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Arlen Specter (Pa.) as well as for Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is running for the open seat of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who is running for president.

A scheduled Cheney fundraiser for Kerr in Lexington was cancelled and is not likely to be rescheduled.

Even without a visit from Bush, voters’ opinion of his administration are likely to be put to the test next month.

Competitive special elections tend to function as a chance for voters to either voice their approval or lack thereof with the party in power and its policies.

Kerr has tied herself closely to the president as she seeks to make up a significant name-identification gap with Chandler.

“If you share the values of President Bush, you’ll like Alice Forgy Kerr,” says a narrator in a recent ad for her campaign. “They’re cut from the same cloth.”

The commercial features footage of Kerr and Bush walking and talking outside of the White House as the narrator intones: “Alice Forgy Kerr is the only candidate who will work with President Bush.”

Chandler’s campaign operatives have countered by presenting him as an independent thinker who will work with the president when it is in the best interests of the district and fight him when it is not, drawing an implicit contrast with Kerr whom, they argue, is simply a “rubber stamp” for Bush policies.

“She is saying that she is going to be with the president 100 percent of the time,” said Sauer. “Chandler has shown an ability to stand up to members of his own party and work across party lines.”

An example of Chandler’s strategy is his recent call to keep open a veterans’ hospital in Lexington even as a federal committee overseen by Veterans Affair Secretary Anthony Principi is set to release a report about the potential closing of as many as seven VA hospitals nationwide.

Bush is not the only national figure being injected into the 6th district race, however.

The NRCC is currently running an ad that begins with images of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) as well as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), as an announcer says: “Some want to raise taxes, killing jobs.”

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