BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON -- The heated basketball rivalry between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville has bounced over to Kentucky's hotly contested U.S. Senate race.
Here's the lineup: UofL Coach Denny Crum is with Republican Jim Bunning of Southgate; former UK coach Rick Pitino, now coaching the Boston Celtics, is on Lexington Democrat Scotty Baesler's team.
Just a few hours Friday after news leaked out that Mr. Crum had cut a radio commercial for Mr. Bunning, Mr. Baesler interrupted a lunchtime speech at the Senior Citizens Center of Northern Kentucky to take a cell phone call from Mr. Pitino.
"I'm supporting Scotty Baesler because I think he understands the people of Kentucky and he epitomizes what they stand for," Mr. Pitino said in a brief interview from Boston after chatting with Mr. Baesler for a few moments.
"And, he's a (Kentucky) Wildcat fan."
Mr. Pitino, who won't do any advertising for Mr. Baesler before election day Tuesday, made sure to say his support means he is for Scotty Baesler "but I'm not anti-Jim Bunning."
Still, the popular coach and Mr. Bunning, a six-term U.S. House member trying to win votes in a tight Senate race, have a history. Mr. Bunning sent a terse telegram to Mr. Pitino after the coach introduced President Bill Clinton at a Lexington rally on the eve of the 1996 election.
The rally was held on the UK campus and attracted about 10,000 people. Some political watchers and media reports said the rally -- covered by all the state's newspapers -- helped give Mr. Clinton his slim victory over Republican Bob Dole in Kentucky.
Though Mr. Bunning sent the telegram within days of the rally, Mr. Pitino did not release it to the public for several months. When he did, it caused some embarrassment for Mr. Bunning, who in the telegram said Mr. Pitino had "lost me as a UK fan."
"That was a slap to UK and myself," Mr. Pitino said Friday about the telegram.
Mr. Baesler said Friday his campaign had asked Mr. Pitino about a month ago to attend a fund-raiser, but the coach couldn't make it. Though he said it was a coincidence that Mr. Pitino's endorsement came on the same day as news of Mr. Crum's commercial for Mr. Bunning, Mr. Baesler admitted the Crum radio ad may have spurred Mr. Pitino to act.
"I don't exactly know why it happened today, but I'm glad it did," he said.
"I don't think it will turn the election, but it sure can't hurt," said Mr. Baesler, himself a UK Wildcat in the early 1960s.
Kyle Simmons, Mr. Bunning's campaign spokesman, said he had "no thought on it" when asked about Mr. Pitino's support of Mr. Baesler.
"We're happy that somebody like Denny Crum is backing us," Mr. Simmons said.
Mr. Bunning spent Friday wrapping up the final day of his five-day statewide bus tour with a late afternoon rally in Lexington.
He'll spend Saturday and Sunday making phone calls from his Fort Wright campaign headquarters "trying to get out the vote," Mr. Simmons said.
Both Senate candidates will take to the air Monday on statewide fly-arounds. Mr. Baesler will make a Northern Kentucky stop Monday morning while Mr. Bunning will end his fly-around about 6:30 p.m. at the Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron.
In the race for Mr. Bunning's 4th District U.S. House seat, Republican Gex "Jay" Williams and Democrat Ken Lucas, both of Boone County, will be on the stump.
Mr. Williams plans to make 15 stops in Northern Kentucky communities in "an armada of dozens of cars" filled with his supporters, said campaign manager Craig Hendricks.
Mr. Lucas, who campaigned in the eastern portion of the 4th District Friday, will stump in the west Saturday, said campaign manager John Lapp.