Critical clash looming in race too close to call


TONIGHT’S vice-presidential debate in this small town in central Kentucky comes at a critical juncture. Following President Barack Obama’s defeat in his debate with Mitt Romney last week, Romney is leading for the first time in a year in the Real Clear Politics poll average, by a slim margin of 0.7 per cent.

As the race entered its final month yesterday, Gallup switched its polling method from registered voters to those most likely to show up on November 6th – a measure that favours Republicans. In a Pew poll published Monday, Romney led Obama by four points among likely voters.

“One night in Denver undid most of the advantage Mr Obama had appeared to gain in September,” writes Nate Silver, of the New York Times’s 538 (after the number of electoral college votes) blog. Silver calculates that Romney has a 28.8 per cent chance of taking the 270 votes needed to win the electoral college. Obama’s lead in the crucial swing state of Ohio has narrowed from 10 to four points.

In shop windows in Danville, population 17,000, tonight’s debate is billed as a boxing match, with the words “Thrill in the Ville” emblazoned above the vice-presidential candidates’ photos.

“Joe’s gonna take out the old meat-axe and go to work,” Dick Harpootlian, a member of Obama’s national finance committee told website Politico. “They’ll have to call the humane society.”

“We should expect to see what we saw with Governor Romney and President Obama in Denver,” predicts Steve Robertson, the chairman of the state’s Republican party.

Kentucky is a strange political animal, voting Republican in national contests but Democratic in local and state elections. President Obama is unpopular, even in his own party.

“We are trying to distinguish ourselves from the national party, mainly on social issues,” says Dan Logsdon, the chairman of the state Democratic party. “The president’s healthcare plan is not popular here.”

Like anxious Democrats across the country after Denver, Logsdon laments Obama’s poor communications skills.

John McCain defeated Obama by 60 to 40 per cent in Kentucky in 2008. “It’ll probably be worse this time,” Logsdon sighs. “In 2008, Hillary Clinton campaigned very hard here. The claims she made resonated and festered. You add coal. You add gay marriage – which is incredibly unpopular here – and the rise of the Tea Party, which has a strong history here – you combine all these things and it’s really an uphill battle.”

Eastern Appalachian Kentucky relies on coal for a living. Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency has stopped issuing permits for surface mining. Andy Barr, a Republican Congressional candidate in central Kentucky, promises he will roll back “oppressive regulation” by the agency. Even the state’s Democratic governor is at odds with Obama on coal. Mitt Romney has emphasised Obama’s “war on coal” in coal-producing states.

Obama was unchallenged in the Democratic primary, but in Kentucky, 42 per cent of Democrats ticked “uncommitted” on their ballot papers, a terrible disavowal.

“I think it was because of coal,” says Logsdon. “And our primary came not very long after the president came out in support of gay marriage.”

The US’s $16 trillion debt is also an issue. “The thing I hear most often is that we’re a debtor nation and China owns most of our debt,” Logsdon says.

Kentucky Democrats are “blue dogs” – conservative on social issues, more moderate on government spending. Their main differences with Republicans regard funding for public education and support for labour unions.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia for Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Logsdon says. “Bill Clinton won Kentucky in 1992 and 1996. He’s from the South.” The former president is trying to limit damage from Obama’s Denver debacle, joking with a crowd in Las Vegas on Monday that he’s glad to have “the old Moderate Mitt” back.

Clinton “was a tremendous communicator”, Logsdon continues. “He framed social issues in a way that people found more palatable. On abortion, he was pro-choice but he said it should be ‘safe, legal and rare’. People understood he didn’t want to return to back alley abortions, but he didn’t want it to be a form of birth control either.”

Local elections in Kentucky are based on personality and tradition.

“The political trajectory goes back to the civil war,” explains Richard Taylor, a former state poet laureate.

Kentucky’s motto is “United we stand; divided we fall”, but it was the most divided state in the 1860s. Martial law and the emancipation proclamation created deep resentment. Republicans were abolitionists; the former confederates Democrats, Taylor explains. “The whole South was Democratic until the civil rights movement, when Dixiecrats morphed into Republicans.”

Kentuckians were just a little slower. They often quote Mark Twain, who said, “I want to be in Kentucky when the world ends, because it’s always 20 years behind.”

White Kentuckians began their shift in the 1990s. Since 2008, Republicans added 82,000 to their rolls; the Democrats only 14,000. “Judeo-Christian values are important here,” says Robertson, the Republican chair.

“We’re part of the Bible belt. There are 1.6 million registered Democrats; 1.1 million registered Republicans, but philosophically, Kentucky is a red state. The gap is closing.”

Mitch McConnell, the crusty old Senate minority leader from Kentucky, famously said in 2010 that the Republicans’ top priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. In Kentucky, says Robertson, the party’s greatest challenge is “how do we capitalise on the unpopularity of the president”?

For all his misgivings about Obama, Logsdon fears the Romney victory the Republicans are starting to believe in. “It would probably mean we’d lose the Senate as well,” the Democratic chairman says. “It would be one-party rule, and you’d see the dismantling of the New Deal reforms that protect people at their most vulnerable: the end of dignified retirement; cutbacks in education; extremists appointed to the Supreme Court. To me, a Mitt Romney presidency is very scary.”