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Unless voters in Kentucky’s 6th district suddenly have a change of heart, the Republicans are headed for a rocky Feb. 17 special election in the Lexington-area House district. Former two-term state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D), not state Rep. Alice Forgy Kerr (R), has the advantage in the final days before the election.

But worse than the loss of a single House seat, a Republican defeat would suggest some problems for President Bush and his party. [IMGCAP(1)]

This isn’t exactly what Republicans expected to happen when the seat became open, following Republican Ernie Fletcher’s election as governor in November.

GOP strategists planned to make the special election a referendum on a popular president and a contrast of ideologies in a conservative district. That way, they figured, they could elect Kerr to Congress even though the district has a Democratic registration advantage and is politically competitive.

But, instead of being an unadulterated asset, the president is proving to be more of a mixed blessing, and Kerr and the Republicans are struggling, at least so far, to convince voters that the race presents a stark choice between a liberal and a conservative.

Chandler, who comes from a well-known Kentucky Democratic family and served as state auditor, began his House bid just a few weeks after Kentucky voters handed him a loss in his gubernatorial bid. He was defeated rather handily by Fletcher, a doctor turned Congressman who called for change in Frankfort and took advantage of voter dissatisfaction with the administration of outgoing Gov. Paul Patton (D).

In spite of his loss, Chandler entered the race to fill Fletcher’s House seat with strong personal poll numbers and has made it difficult for the Republicans to label him as a liberal.

“He doesn’t have much of a record to attack, and he’s been hard to pin down on some issues. I don’t even know whether he is for or against the war in Iraq, even though he has been asked 10 times,” said one Republican observer in obvious frustration.

Adding to the Republicans’ frustrations is that Kerr has proved to be a surprisingly good candidate. A state Senator now in her second term, she is attractive and personable. Her brother, Larry Forgy, ran for governor twice, losing the general election narrowly to Patton in 1995.

When I met her a couple of months ago, I had some doubts about Kerr. She couldn’t list any significant legislative accomplishments and didn’t project much gravitas. But Republican observers of the race rave about her efforts.

“She’s been a great candidate. She stood up to Chandler in the debate, has dialed for dollars and works hard all of the time. She’s done everything anyone asked,” one normally restrained Republican gushed.

But Kerr’s (and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s) strategy of linking her with Bush and painting Chandler as an anti-Bush, double-talking liberal simply hasn’t been a slam dunk.

The president, who carried the district with 56 percent in 2000, has so far not ventured into the district to support Kerr’s candidacy. If he does, it might not help her anyway. Bush’s numbers have slipped nationally, and they have also dipped in Kentucky. That development has undermined Kerr’s strategy and undercut her chances in the race.

While the White House can (and surely will) insist that the special election is not a referendum on Bush, the GOP nominee had intended to ride the president’s coattails to Congress, and, at least so far, that has not happened.

Chandler and his allies also deserve some of the credit for his success. Observers give his campaign (and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s) high marks, making particular note of Chandler’s TV spots.

The Democrat’s advantage in the race’s final days should be enhanced by a League of Conservation Voters’ TV buy that begins on Wednesday. The 30-second ad, which one insider describes as “a pretty healthy buy,” criticizes Kerr’s record and links her to “special interests” and “polluters.” It also portrays Chandler as an “independent” and a “courageous” voice.

The spot is paid for with soft dollars, since the organization has so-called “MCFL status” and is one of only three national groups that can run soft-money TV ads inside the 30-day primary window under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. (The group also aired spots for Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in Albuquerque and Tucson before the New Mexico caucuses and the Arizona primary.)

In addition to the TV spot, LCV has implemented a field operation in Lexington and Frankfort, with both telephones and mail being used to persuade and turn out voters.

If Chandler does win this seat, it won’t be the end of the world for the Republicans. Scotty Baesler (D) held it for years before Fletcher won it when it became an open seat, and Chandler clearly was the strongest nominee the Democrats could have put forward.

But a loss is a loss, and the GOP nominee’s inability to ride to Congress on Bush’s standing — and LCV’s TV ads and related activities — would raise obvious questions for the Republicans about November.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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