WASHINGTON — High-profile Kentucky politicians will have to walk a delicate tightrope in the coming weeks as the Republican Party makes a final push to retain the White House and several key congressional seats.
On the campaign trail, Republican National Committee chairman and Kentucky native Mike Duncan must rally the base around Arizona Sen. John McCain, a presidential candidate who has long troubled conservative segments of the party. Duncan's task is to help convince economically strapped Middle America that McCain is the right agent of change to return the nation to the level of prosperity the country experienced before President Bush took office.
And Duncan must accomplish this while taking great pains not to disparage Bush, whose approval ratings hover at record lows, or the Republican leadership in Congress.
Similarly, Senate Minority Leader and fellow Kentucky native Mitch McConnell will have to make the case that Congress's failure to act on such issues as the energy crisis is the Democrats' fault, and that he can overcome his own highly publicized differences with McCain to work with the Republican nominee to bring about change.
Such a balancing act requires careful calculation and a laser-like focus on McCain's message and appeal, said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
"There are several ways to accomplish this," Gross said. "One is the renewed focus on foreign policy leadership. The second is a bit more difficult, and (McCain's) had some success in the last week, and that's to somehow convince the American public that even though the Republicans have controlled government for six of the last eight years, the Democrats are at fault. McCain can change the way things are done in Washington because he can stand up to Democrats and misbehaving Republicans."
Duncan, the man some Kentucky Republicans call "Mr. Inside," has redoubled efforts to do exactly that in the last six months.
Duncan is behind a sweeping strategy to micro-target potential voters, cross-reference consumer data and send that information via BlackBerry to grass-roots organizers as they canvass neighborhoods for votes — all in a matter of seconds.
The effort includes technology first tested during Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's historic bid to become the first Indian American to win a governorship.
"The chairman has done a great job of setting up this election and what it's about," said Ron Kaufman, a longtime political adviser to former President George H.W. Bush and previous Republican administrations.
"It's a very clear difference in the kind of change McCain stands for and articulating that and the talk about change Obama stands for. (Duncan's) done it day in and day out, media market by media market, state by state. The result of that is starting to show in the polls. Republicans feel better than they did six months ago."
Most national polls have McCain leading Obama in the Bluegrass State by more than 15 percentage points, a lead that political experts says isn't likely to greatly narrow.
Nationally, McCain and Obama are locked in a statistical dead heat, according to a new Ipsos/McClatchy poll. The national poll, released Thursday, finds Republican McCain with the support of 46 percent of registered voters and Democrat Obama with 45 percent. The survey has an error margin of 3.3 percentage points
Duncan is well aware of the delicacy of his task and believes that with McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin heading the ticket, Republicans will ride a second wind that will push them over the top in November.
"We started that ... with our convention," Duncan said. McCain has "had different focuses and multiple themes throughout his campaign, but one theme has always been judgment. He has always positioned himself to be a maverick, and now with Governor Palin they have proposed changes in government and will get back to fiscal responsibility."
The push for McCain-Palin could benefit down-ballot races such as the contest between McConnell and Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford. Both Duncan and McConnell point to the race between Democratic incumbent John Yarmuth and Republican challenger Anne Northup in the 3rd Congressional District contest and GOP-leaning trends in the battle between Republican Brett Guthrie and Democrat David Boswell for the 2nd District seat left open by the retirement of Republican Rep. Ron Lewis as examples of possible down-ballot success.
But even as McConnell leads in the polls by as much as 13 points, according to a roundup of polling data by Real Clear Politics, the senator has also had to navigate his association with Bush administration policies and the fact that he has netted millions in federal funds, or earmarks, for Kentucky projects.
McConnell has managed to deftly negotiate these issues in his commercials and campaign speeches, Gross said. That, coupled with his strong war chest, should bode well for the senator's re-election effort, he said.
"If you are McConnell on the trail, the Bush question is ignored unless you're in a secure audience," Gross said. "When he talks about what he's brought home to Kentucky he doesn't use the term earmarks. He campaigns about what he's achieved for Kentucky."