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McConnell to help Fletcher with race


Gov. Ernie Fletcher didn’t get Mitch McConnell’s blessing in the spring primary, but he’ll soon get a campaign boost from the influential Republican senator.

McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said Monday he expects to spend part of the August congressional recess campaigning in Kentucky for Fletcher, who is trying to rebound from his one-time indictment in a hiring scandal that ended with a negotiated deal with prosecutors.

The Republican governor, who is seeking a second term, is being challenged in the Nov. 6 election by Democrat Steve Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and attorney general.

McConnell, who refused to make an endorsement in the three-way GOP gubernatorial primary in the spring and late last year wouldn’t comment on Fletcher’s performance as governor, was upbeat Monday about the governor’s prospects against Beshear.

In a conference call with Kentucky reporters, McConnell said he’s had conversations with Fletcher since the May primary to discuss strategy.

“I think the governor’s campaign has come along nicely, and I think he has an excellent chance of winning,” said McConnell, a key strategist behind the Republican rise to power in Kentucky even though Democrats hold a clear registration advantage.

Besides the governorship, Republicans hold both of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seats and four of its six U.S. House seats as well as the state Senate.

McConnell didn’t announce any campaign events for Fletcher in August.

Fletcher’s campaign said Monday that McConnell is scheduled to attend three fundraisers for the governor in late August in Lexington, Louisville and Owensboro.

Fletcher campaign manager Marty Ryall said the campaign hoped to schedule other joint appearances with McConnell during the congressional recess in August.

McConnell’s support for Fletcher, which began after the primary, came after months in which the senator was tightlipped about the governor and Fletcher’s political prospects.

Beshear spokeswoman Vicki Glass said Monday “it would be interesting to know what, in McConnell’s mind, changed between now and one year ago when he wouldn’t even utter Fletcher’s name.” She referred to Fletcher as “the same indicted governor” who “pleaded the Fifth and pardoned his political cronies.”

Glass was referring to the hiring scandal in which Fletcher’s administration was accused of illegally rewarding political supporters with state jobs.

A special grand jury indicted Fletcher on three misdemeanors that later were dropped as part of a negotiated deal with prosecutors. Fletcher, who said the probe was politically motivated, issued a blanket pardon for everyone in his administration, other than himself, who could have faced charges stemming from the investigation. A subsequent grand jury report claimed Fletcher oversaw a “widespread and coordinated plan” to avoid state hiring laws.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said McConnell’s active support for Fletcher in the fall campaign was a political necessity for the senator to ensure Republicans are united behind him when he runs for re-election in 2008.

“McConnell knows that at least until November his bread is buttered on the side of Ernie Fletcher,” Sabato said Monday by telephone.

The hiring scandal would give McConnell a “built-in excuse” if Fletcher loses in spite of his active support, Sabato said.

While McConnell looks to be a “considerable favorite” for reelection next year, Sabato said, “he has got to be worried at least a little bit about the possibility of a GOP bloodbath” in November 2008, due to the unpopularity of the Iraq war.

McConnell has been the lead Senate Republican in support of President Bush’s war policy, including the troop buildup this year. Ryall said he wasn’t concerned about an anti-war backlash hurting Fletcher because of his association with McConnell.

“This race is going to be driven by state issues,” he said.

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