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BY TOM MITSOFF
One of Northern Kentucky's best-known native sons finds himself in a race neither he nor his supporters nor national political experts had expected.
In mid-September, Southgate native Jim Bunning was cruising to an easy victory in his bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate for Kentucky, conceded by most to be a "Red" state, a Republican stronghold. Bunning's Democratic challenger, State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, M.D., was mostly unknown outside his home area of Hazard.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the landslide. Bunning began to draw attention by trying to do just the opposite. The incumbent declined interview requests, made campaign stops without publicizing them and gave the impression of a candidate afraid of public scrutiny. His obvious strategy was that with such an apparently huge lead over his largely unknown rival, the less said about anything the better. The only blip on the screen prior to mid-September was Bunning's joke at a public event in Florence that Mongiardo resembles Saddam Hussein's sons. Bunning has since apologized.
Mongiardo began arranging meetings with media editorial boards statewide in late September, a step he had to take if he had a chance to generate any name recognition at all. Those meetings garnered Mongiardo media mentions for the first time in the campaign. He also got the attention of Bunning, whose campaign reacted, inexplicably, with the disastrous "Medicaid Millionaire" TV attack ad, giving Mongiardo the opening he needed.
The ad rips Mongiardo for accumulating millions of dollars through billings to government-run Medicaid. While that may be true, are there any physicians in the new Millennium who don't bill Medicaid, especially with 38 percent of Kentuckians not having private health insurance? The ad also showed a three-story Georgian mansion, which it claimed was Mongiardo's home, when in fact the doctor lives in a one-and-a-half story ranch house in Hazard.
The ad backfired on Bunning. The senator's first real campaign exposure to a statewide audience was a cheesy, sleazy attack that did nothing to douse rumors in state political circles that Bunning is seriously ill.
"The rumor is rampant that I not only have a terminal illness but I am senile," Bunning told Sunday Challenger editors during a meeting last week. He blamed those rumors on Mongiardo's campaign manager, Kim Geveden, who Bunning alleged was the source of similar rumors when planning a possible Paul Patton run against Bunning years ago. Geveden said Bunning's allegation was another in a series of statements unbecoming of a U.S. Senator.
Based on Bunning's meeting with Challenger editors, reports of the senator's demise are greatly exaggerated. He appeared strong and alert. He brought a notebook with him listing key talking points, but referred to it sparingly during a 45-minute interview.
"I sure hope I'm that sharp when I'm 72," commented one Challenger associate editor following the meeting. (The senator turned 73 Saturday.) Bunning's doctors have given him a clean bill of health after a recent exam.
But the burning question remains: Why did Jim Bunning decline the opportunity to debate Mongiardo this week on a statewide Kentucky Educational Television (KET) broadcast? It came on the heels of Bunning's decision to stay in Washington, D.C. for a scheduled regional TV debate with Mongiardo the previous week. The unavoidable impression, true or not, is that Bunning does not want to discuss issues with Mongiardo face to face.
It may be part of the "lay low" incumbent campaign strategy, but the sense here is that the campaign of NKY's native son is way off track and on the defensive. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sensing vulnerability, is pumping money into the Mongiardo campaign in hopes of reclaiming a Senate seat.
Bunning has many supporters in our area, people who have known him for a lifetime and will tell you what a dedicated and conscientious man he is.
The current scenario reminds one of a scene in the movie, "The American President," in which Michael J. Fox's character chastises the president for not responding to fictional opponent Bob Rumson's criticisms:
"Bob Rumson (Daniel Mongiardo?) is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President (Senator?), and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."
Polls show the race tightening, but it's still the incumbent's race to control. Bunning's constituents and friends over his long political career as a member of the Fort Thomas City Council, Kentucky State Senator, 4th District Congressman and present-day U.S. Senator hope he steps up and takes charge before it's too late. Unfortunately, some of his recent actions seem to have left much of the rest of Kentucky's electorate wondering if he still can.
Tom Mitsoff is the editor of The Sunday Challenger. This column was published October 24, 2004, in The Sunday Challenger, serving Northern Kentucky. It was one a group of columns awarded an honorable mention by the Kentucky Press Association in "best column" judging.
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