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Riding Kentucky's political roller coaster

Ben Chandler, a loser in Kentucky's fall gubernatorial race, now finds himself  the frontrunner to fill the vacant seat of the man who beat him out for governor.
/ Source: NBC News

Forgive Ben Chandler if he’s a tad dizzy when he finally gets off the political roller coaster he’s been riding. Last fall, Chandler, a Democrat, dueled with Republican Congressman Ernie Fletcher to become the next governor of Kentucky. And although Chandler was the underdog -- since the state is increasingly tilting to the GOP, since Fletcher had more campaign cash, and since the previous scandal-plagued Democratic governor was an albatross for any Democratic candidate -- he climbed back into the race, campaigning on his record as state attorney general and on his family’s name (his grandfather, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, was Kentucky’s governor in the 1930s and 1950s).

But Chandler also did something else that caught Washington’s attention: he campaigned against President Bush and his economic record, highlighting the nation’s then-6 percent unemployment rate and the more than 30,000 jobs the state had lost since Bush became president. “We’re going to have to do something about getting the economy moving. That’s the bottom line,” Chandler said last summer. “All of this has occurred under Bush’s watch.”

Days before the election, however, Bush visited Kentucky twice, the Commerce Department announced the economy had grown by a whopping 7.2 percent in the third quarter, and Fletcher ended up defeating Chandler, 55 to 45 percent. Not surprisingly, Republicans immediately used this victory to flex their muscles. “The Democrat strategy was negative attacks and tying Ernie Fletcher to President Bush and making this race a referendum on the president’s economic policies,” Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said in a statement. “The Democrats had their referendum and got their answer.”

Despite his defeat last fall, Chandler has once again jumped back into the ring, this time running for Fletcher’s vacant House seat in a special election that will take place this Tuesday. But now it’s Chandler’s opponent, the Republican state senator Alice Forgy Kerr, who has tried to turn this race into a referendum on Bush. In fact, she began airing an ad last month that said she and Bush are “cut from the same cloth.”

“In the governor’s race that Chandler just ran, he made his opposition to Bush a centerpiece,” Kerr’s campaign manager told the Associated Press earlier this month. “Senator Kerr is making an equally big centerpiece out of her support for the president in her campaign.”

Yet a strange thing has happened in this congressional race. According to polls, Chandler appears to be the one who’s leading. And unlike his assistance to Fletcher last fall, Bush will most likely not stump for Kerr in Kentucky, even though Kerr said back in December that he might campaign for her. “I think [Chandler] has an excellent opportunity to win,” said Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant in the state. “Bush not coming here is a good, tell-tale sign of what’s going on.”

“We feel really good about our chances right now,” added Kentucky Democratic Party chair Bill Garmer.

Observers point to a couple of reasons for Chandler’s current lead over Kerr. For one thing, Chandler has been able to tap into the statewide organization he put in place during his bid for governor, and also benefit from the huge name recognition he gained from that race – both of which help him enormously in this truncated special congressional election. “I think our candidate is good,” said one Republican strategist. “The fact is their candidate is excellent.”

In addition, Chandler no longer has the previous administration of Democratic Gov. Paul Patton dragging him down; both Democrats and Republicans agree that the scandals surrounding Patton (including his acknowledgement of having an affair with a woman, who accused him of using state regulators to retaliate against her for ending the affair) was one of the main reasons why Chandler lost in last fall’s gubernatorial race.

But something else seems to be going on in Kentucky: candidates -- whether they’re supporting him or opposing him -– are having a tricky time when they tie their fortunes to Bush. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As political analyst Charlie Cook has noted, Bush’s job-approval numbers have a topsy-turvy pattern to them. After a honeymoon in his first year as president, Bush’s job-approval rating began to decline as the economy began to dip; then after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his rating soared as the nation rallied around him; and then the numbers once again started to decline before the Iraq war, when they once again took off.

Most recently, Bush had a good December 2003 –- the very time Kerr was embarking on her candidacy – when Saddam Hussein’s capture dominated the news. But he had an equally rough January 2004, when questions about WMD intelligence and the news of just 1,000 new jobs dogged the Administration. Consequently, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, Bush’s job-approval rating last week hit 49 percent, the lowest point during his presidency.

As if on cue, though, Bush’s latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup rating has inched back up to 52 percent (although that’s still within the margin of error of last week’s figure).

One GOP strategist attributes these constant ups and downs to the major events that have happened during Bush’s tenure. “This is a president that has had a lot of big moments take place in his presidency.” The strategist adds that these poll movements suggest there are perhaps many more swing voters out there than many may realize, and the direction in which these voters will be swinging this November could likely decide the presidential election and quite a few down-ballot races.

While Bush may be inching up again in the polls, so is Kerr, Republicans say. Carl Forti, the communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, points out that Kerr began her campaign down 17 points (according to Democratic polls), and that she has been making up steady ground ever since. In fact, Forti says, the race is now within single digits. “At that point, it becomes all about turnout, and we like our chances.”

Forti also dismisses any significance to Bush’s decision not to stump for Kerr, arguing that it’s hardly unusual for a president not to campaign for candidates running a special House election. In the last election cycle, he notes, there were eight special House races, and Bush didn’t campaign in any of them.

Ellen Williams, the chair of the Kentucky Republican Party is also optimistic. “We feel really good about this,” she said. “We feel like she’s moving in the right direction.”

Democrats say that Chandler is still leading, but some privately acknowledge they’re seeing the same trend as their Republican opponents are, and they’re not taking Tuesday’s election for granted. After all, in the Bush age, we’re seeing this law of political physics at work: What goes up, must come down. And vice versa.

Mark Murray is an off-air political reporter for NBC News.