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Kentucky Senate President David Williams speaks at the Lincoln Dinner Saturday in Corbin.





Many people came to see if there would be fireworks — but there were none. U.S. Sens. Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell and two potential primary challengers to Bunning spoke at the 5th District Lincoln Day Dinner. But only state Senate President David Williams made an indirect reference to a potential intra-party squabble.

No one spoke directly about apparent efforts by some in the party, including McConnell, to pressure Bunning into not running for re-election in 2010. Well, almost no one.

Larry Forgy, who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor, offered this observation before the dinner began.

“You ever see a bunch a hens pecking on one hen?” Forgy asked reporters before the dinner. “Well, I think this time they’ve pecked on a strong, stringy rooster and they’re getting it back. He’ll beat ’em if they don’t let him alone.”

More than 450 Republicans crammed into the Corbin Technology Center in Corbin, many of them unable to hide their anticipation of potential contretemps when the two U.S. Senators, state Secretary of State Trey Grayson, and Williams broke bread together and all but Grayson addressed the room full of devout Republicans.

Bunning wants a third term after winning two close races in 1998 and 2004, but some in his party think he can’t win and it’s time for the 77-year-old Major League Hall of Fame pitcher to retire. Bunning has said he told McConnell in December he intended to run, but in January McConnell said he didn’t know Bunning’s plans about 2010. Since then, their relationship has been strained.

But there they were at the same table Saturday night. Across the room, sat Grayson and Williams, both of whom have been mentioned as candidates for Bunning’s seat. Grayson is interested, but he says he’s unlikely to run against Bunning, with whom he’s been friends since Grayson since he was a child. Williams recently met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee while he was in Washington.

The apparent strategy by party leaders is to dry up Bunning’s fund raising ability. He has said it will take $10 million to finance an effective re-election campaign and recently said he hopes to raise $2 million of that by the end of June. But two weeks ago, he revised that goal, telling the Paducah Sun he hoped to raise $1.5 million by the end of the second quarter.

Bunning didn’t refer to the lack of support from his party, but he made clear he’s running in 2010. He spent most of his time talking about his opposition to federal legislation to stimulate the economy or bail out financial and auto industries, positions which have been popular with Republicans and conservatives.

“I believe in core conservative values,” Bunning said, “and I’m not anybody’s puppet string. I’m my own man.”

Bunning made clear he’s running for a third term after thanking 5th District Republicans for their support in previous races.

“I hope I can count on your support when I run again in 2010.”

Williams spoke first and he didn’t flinch. He reminded the crowd he campaigned with McConnell on his bus tour last fall and that he campaigned with Bunning in 2004. He said Republicans must keep Bunning’s seat in 2010.

“And I plan to be on that bus,” Williams said. “It remains to be seen in what capacity I’ll be riding that bus. But I assure you that if the Republican Party keeps that seat in Kentucky, we’re all going to be on that bus.”

U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, who represents the 5th Congressional District, got the loudest, warmest applause when he was introduced. He told jokes, took on the policies of President Obama and told the crowd how grateful he is for the support of the Republicans in the room.

McConnell didn’t go near the Bunning controversy, either. He gave his standard dinner circuit speech, talking about his role as Republican Leader, reminding the crowd he has lead the effort to make Kentucky a “permanent two-party state,” and criticizing congressional Democrats while saying he still hopes to work with the popular Obama.

He did not mention Bunning. But he managed to mention both Williams and Grayson, calling Williams a “fabulous legislator who has done a fabulous job of leading the state Senate and our state.”

“Speaking of young people on the rise,” McConnell said Grayson has a bright future and won two state-wide races, the last in 2007 winning by a large majority in the face of a Democratic wave that replaced then Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher with Democrat Steve Beshear.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. He may be contacted by email at rellis@cnhi.com.

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