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Kentucky a Fading Target

Once considered one of Democrats’ top targets, Kentucky’s Senate race has all but fallen off the national radar screen even as their nominee is set to formally enter the contest today.

The free-fall of the Kentucky race is the result of a confluence of factors beginning with then-Gov. Paul Patton’s (D) admission of an affair with a state employee in late 2002 and concluding with the financial and organizational struggles of state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, the likely Democratic standard bearer this fall.

“The national community is starting to write it off,” said one knowledgeable Democratic observer with strong ties to Kentucky. “This thing looks too tough on paper.”

The source added that Mongiardo likely has until the June 30 filing deadline with the Federal Election Commission to prove to key Kentucky activists and donors that he can turn the campaign around.

He must also run a primary against David Williams on May 18. Williams, who is not expected to present a serious challenge to Mongiardo, ran against Rep. Ron Lewis (R) in 2002, taking 29 percent.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen said freshman Sen. Jim Bunning (R) “is well positioned for re-election.”

“Democrats are talking a big game in Kentucky, but the reality is not there,” Allen added.

For his part, Mongiardo maintained that he did little in relation to his Senate bid during Kentucky’s legislative session, which ended April 13, and is now picking up the pace.

“I am just now starting a full-blown campaign,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “Democrats across the state are fired up about this race.”

Despite his optimism, Mongiardo faces an extremely steep hill — especially on the fundraising front.

Bunning, who served 12 years in the House before being elected in an open-seat race in 1998, ended March with $3.7 million to spend. He had raised $4.9 million for the contest to that point.

By contrast, Mongiardo had $243,000 in the bank and had raised just $481,000 — $200,000 of which came in the form of a personal donation.

Mongiardo said he has raised an additional $200,000 since the close of the legislative session and has hired a new finance director.

Mongiardo, an otolaryngologist by training, has significant personal wealth and may be able to make personal donations totaling seven figures, according to informed Democratic sources.

“Money is a part of it and we are going to do what it takes to win,” Mongiardo said.

His campaign has also scuffled to get a staff in place; the campaign manager, Jody Lassiter, resigned last week, a departure that followed the decision of two other high-level staffers to leave the campaign in late 2003.

Mongiardo described Lassiter’s dismissal in medical terms.

“As a surgeon I have to make sure my team in the operating room works well together,” he said. “This was no reflection on Jody but there was no team cohesiveness.”

Despite his early struggles, even the harshest Mongiardo critics don’t blame him entirely for the current state of the race.

Many see Patton’s admission of an affair as the first in a series of dominoes to fall, leading Kentucky Democrats to their current position.

Patton was expected to challenge Bunning in 2004 before he was forced to admit that he had an extramarital affair with a state employee.

Although Patton served out his term as governor, his problems were widely blamed for the 2003 gubernatorial defeat of former state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) — a fact confirmed when Chandler bounced back to win a Feb. 17 special House election in the 6th district.

Patton’s fall from grace not only damaged the party in the 2003 election but also left it without a top-tier candidate to take on Bunning, who won his Senate seat by less than 7,000 votes in 1998.

Wealthy businessman and Chandler lieutenant governor pick Charlie Owen passed on the race, as did 4th district Rep. Ken Lucas (D).

That left the nomination to Mongiardo, whose initial intention to run excited Democrats both in the state and nationally.

On paper, Mongiardo is an impressive candidate.

He was first elected to the state Senate in 2000 but found himself redistricted out of the seat the next year.

He ran and won another state Senate seat in 2002 and briefly held both. When Mongiardo was sworn in to his new eastern Kentucky seat he resigned his old seat, which encompassed much of northern Kentucky.

And, Bunning has clearly given Mongiardo an opening with several high-profile slip-ups.

“We have every reason to believe that Senator Bunning is vulnerable,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse.

The most notable of these gaffes was on March 20, when at a local Republican dinner Bunning said Mongiardo resembled one of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons.

Bunning initially denied he made the comment, then said it was meant as a joke.

Mongiardo seized on the issue, demanding that Bunning release a videotape of the event, which was known to exist. Bunning has not done so.

Mongiardo appears unwilling to let the issue disappear, however.

“What concerns me more than anything is that he has denied saying it and he has lied,” said Mongiardo, adding that it represents a pattern for Bunning, who “says outrageous statements and then denies saying them.”

“The people of Kentucky don’t want that kind of person representing us,” he added.

Bunning also ran into some trouble recently when he said that one of two bridge projects in Louisville would have to be delayed because a bridge in northern Kentucky — the Senator’s longtime political base — needed repairs.

Bunning said he misspoke, quickly clarifying that he supports building both bridges in Louisville.

His office chose not to comment for this story.

In spite of the blunders, Bunning may be on the verge of getting a pass unless Mongiardo’s campaign quickly picks up speed.

“There is no doubt that Dan Mongiardo has the brains and the skills to be a U.S. Senator,” said one D.C.-based Democratic strategist. “The question is whether or not he can put together the campaign he needs to get there, and that is an open question.”

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