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By BRENT SCHANDING
Landmark News Service
The war in Iraq will take a back seat to the economy, while promises of “political change” will ultimately drive Kentucky voters this November. That’s the word from a sampling of elected leaders and political science professors across the state, who expect the outcomes of this year’s 2008 general election to be revealing – if not surprising – in Kentucky.
Pollsters and political analysts predict the state will again be “red” this November.
Some experts predict that Republican presidential nominee John McCain will easily carry Kentucky’s eight electoral votes – beating Barack Obama here by as much as a 2-to-1 margin. Most polls also indicate incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell will defeat Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford.
“But my personal sense is that it’s going to be closer than McConnell is used to,” said Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University. Lasley gives McConnell a slight edge over his opponent, with 55 percent of the vote.
Lasley said it has been a tough year for the GOP – marked by poor approval ratings for outgoing President George W. Bush, a souring economy and a growing discontent for the war in Iraq. However, Republican promises for reform have bolstered support for the party, and Lasley says the GOP likely will fare well in Kentucky if they can give specifics about how they will improve the economy.
“I think you’re seeing a couple things,” Lasley said. “For some, it’s the gas prices; for some, it’s inflation; for some, it’s the stock market.”
But nearly all Kentucky voters want political change, he said.
More Kentuckians than ever could help decide who can best bring that change.
As many as 2,894,299 Kentucky voters were registered to cast ballots as of Sept. 15, according to Les Fugate, spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office.
“We set a record in the primary, and this is a new record,” Fugate said. More Kentuckians likely will register by the Oct. 6 deadline.
Registered Democrats account for nearly 57 percent of voters in the Bluegrass State; Republicans comprise about 36 percent, while Independents make up less than 7 percent.
While registered Democrats in Kentucky outnumber Republicans by some 600,000 voters, it’s hard to find any political insider who would give Democrats an edge here next month.
“McCain appears to be well ahead in the 17th District,” said State Rep. C.B. Embry, a Republican who represents Butler and Grayson counties, along with parts of Hardin County. “In the race for U.S. Senator, Sen. Mitch McConnell appears to have a good margin in the 17th.”
State Rep. Rick Rand, a Democrat who represents Carroll, Henry and Trimble counties, along with parts of Oldham County, also concedes Kentucky likely will support McCain.
“I don’t think there’s any questions about that,” he said.
But Rand predicts the race will be tighter for the U.S. Senate seat between McConnell and Lunsford. The winner of that race must convince voters how he will reform Washington.
“The main thing I find is that people want government to work for them. They just want a new direction and fresh ideas,” Rand said. “They want someone who can work across party lines. People are adamant. They’re tired of partisan bickering, and they want change.”
Kentuckians will be looking at the “big picture” this year, Rand said, carefully considering how each candidate will affect the economy, national security and other hot-button issues.
And big-picture thinking means there’s no guarantee that Republicans and Democrats will garner the majority support from their registered constituents here.
“As odd as it seems, voter registration isn’t the best measure of party ID,” Lasley said. “There’s a disconnect between state and national politics.”
That would explain why a seemingly Democratic Kentucky overwhelmingly supported Republicans in the past few national elections. For instance, incumbent President Bush defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin here in 2004.
“I think on the national level, voters are more likely to vote a philosophy,” Rand said. “And voters are a little more conservative here.”
Also, voters in national elections are more likely to break party lines as they consider the characteristics of each candidate, Lasley added. Age, race, experience and faith become more decisive factors for voters in high-profile elections.
Still, it’s a tough call. Kentucky has a large number of swing voters (a group any candidate must sway to claim victory) and as many as 30 percent of the vote may be undecided, according to some polls.
DeAnna Lasley of the Leitchfield Record contributed to this story.