LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For someone accustomed to being a political aggressor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a bull's eye on his back at the beginning of what may be his toughest re-election campaign in years.
Interest groups have run television ads attacking the Kentucky Republican for supporting President Bush's Iraq war policy and opposing legislation to expand federal subsidies for children's health care.
But McConnell's Democratic opponent likely will face an uphill climb to compete financially in what is expected to be an expensive race. As of Sept. 30, McConnell had raised more than $9 million and had nearly $7 million on hand for the 2008 campaign.
"Obviously, it will be a difficult race because he is the champion of fundraising," said Gov.-elect Steve Beshear, a Democrat who won a lopsided victory this month over first-term Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
In search of a challenger
Buoyed by Beshear's win, Kentucky Democrats sense an opportunity to topple McConnell, a four-term senator and the state's Republican kingpin.
"He's certainly more vulnerable now than he's been in a long, long time," said Beshear, who knows just how formidable McConnell can be, having lost a 1996 Senate race to him by more than 160,000 votes.
In winning this time, Beshear benefitted from Fletcher's unique legal and political problems. Fletcher spent much of his term battling an investigation into whether he rewarded GOP supporters with protected civil-service jobs at the expense of Democrats.
Nationally, Republicans under McConnell start out at a big disadvantage in trying to retake control of a Senate where Democrats now have what is effectively a 51-49 majority. Only 12 Democratic seats are in play in 2008, compared with 22 GOP seats.
While Democrats boast top-tier challengers for Republican-held seats in Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota and Oregon, they make no such claim in Kentucky. Video: McConnell on Iraq aftermath
And established Kentucky Democrats aren't exactly jumping at the chance to challenge McConnell, who already is running TV ads touting his Senate leadership position and how it benefits the state.
Limited contenders list
So far, the only announced Democratic candidate is political newcomer Michael Cassaro, a Louisville-area doctor who acknowledged that his campaign headquarters for now is a spare bedroom at his father's house.
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Two veteran Democratic politicians with statewide name recognition are considering runs - departing Attorney General Greg Stumbo and state Auditor Crit Luallen, who won a second term this month.
Stumbo ran for lieutenant governor this year as part of a slate that finished second in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Much of Stumbo's term as attorney general was devoted to investigating Fletcher's patronage practices.
Luallen has been a fixture in Kentucky government. She won re-election as state auditor with 59 percent of the vote and previously served as an assistant to past Democratic governors.
Tough political reputation
While McConnell has been a staunch congressional ally of President Bush, he parted with the president on legislation that would have made millions of illegal immigrants eligible for lawful status. McConnell helped block the bill in June, acknowledging that it wasn't popular back home.
Bush easily carried Kentucky twice and gave a boost to Kentucky's other senator, Republican Jim Bunning, who barely defeated Democrat Daniel Mongiardo in 2004.
Mongiardo is now the lieutenant governor-elect and has said he has no intention of challenging McConnell.
McConnell, known for his bare-knuckled campaign style, sent a clear message to any would-be Democratic challenger at a recent meeting where Republicans plotted strategy after losing the governor's race.
"I'm a bigger target, but I'm a pretty big boy," McConnell said. "And I'll tell you this, as I've said before, they throw a pebble at me, I'm going to throw a boulder back."
Recent newspaper polls have sent mixed signals about McConnell's standing in the state.
A Lexington Herald-Leader/Action News 36 Election Poll in October showed that 46 percent of respondents disapproved of McConnell's job performance and 45 percent approved. The Courier-Journal's Bluegrass Poll in September put McConnell's approval rating at 54 percent, while 28 percent disapproved and the rest had no opinion.
Not even his sharpest critics doubt McConnell's political abilities. He is viewed as the mastermind behind the GOP's rise to power in Kentucky in recent years. Republicans hold both U.S. Senate seats, four of six congressional seats and control the state Senate.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said McConnell remains the favorite in next year's race.
"My money's on McConnell and always is because he has so much money," Sabato said. "He's the minority leader, and he's as wily as anybody in politics. But I'll bet even he recognizes that he has to be on guard, probably more than at any time since his first re-election in 1990."
Despite McConnell's huge head start at raising campaign money, Luallen said there is time for someone to put together a strong challenge, given Democrats' momentum.
"If you mount an aggressive campaign and have strong support behind you, you can put it together very quickly," Luallen said. "And you can raise money very quickly, especially if you have national support."
Other Democrats considering the race include Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne and Louisville businessman Charlie Owen.
Former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, a Democrat, said Beshear's election makes it a tougher race for McConnell. One thing is for sure, he said: The Democratic nominee can expect McConnell to run a hard-hitting campaign.
"Before you get started, the people will already know who you are, what you are," Ford said, "because he's already framed you."
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