By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Imagine if Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis boldly predicted that his 1-4 team would make the playoffs this season.
Northern Kentucky Republican leaders say Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Chandler is making an equivalent claim with his pledge to cut into the region's strong GOP base in the Nov. 4 election.
"As a general matter, I run ahead of other Democrats in the northern part of our state," Chandler said by cell phone last week as he headed to a campaign event in Lawrenceburg, Ky., outside Frankfort.
"I've done that consistently, and my granddaddy (former Gov. and U.S. Sen. A.B. "Happy" Chandler) did very, very good in Northern Kentucky.
"I'm not suggesting we'll carry Northern Kentucky. But I know a lot of people in Northern Kentucky,'' Ben Chandler said.
It is impossible to determine if Chandler - who faces Republican Ernie Fletcher on Nov. 4 - is actually pinning his campaign strategy on a groundswell of Northern Kentucky support.
Or whether it's as some Republicans believe: that he is merely trying to fire up the dwindling Democratic base in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.
"Chandler is either getting some real bad advice or he's engaging in some pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking," said Kentucky GOP vice chairman Damon Thayer, a Republican state senator from Georgetown whose district includes southern Kenton County.
"He's probably just trying to keep this base motivated," Thayer said. "Or he's trying to pull one over on Fletcher. I got news for Ben. Ernie is smarter than that."
Democrats insist their party's voters will turn out in big numbers for Chandler on Election Day, keeping in the fold registered Democrats who have crossed party lines in recent elections to back Republicans.
"We have people working the phones and knocking on doors every night," said Campbell County Commissioner Dave Otto, a Fort Thomas Democrat and key Chandler campaign operative.
"The whole idea is getting voters out. And that's not going to be as hard as it has been for past Democratic candidates because Chandler is the real deal.
"He is passionate, honest, and Democrats know in their hearts that he is not the Frankfort insider that Fletcher is trying to portray him as."
But, at least politically, Chandler could not have chosen a worse time to target Northern Kentucky for votes.
Republicans, who based on voter registrations already control Boone County, are within striking distance of taking over the region.
Voter registration figures from the Kentucky Secretary of State's office, updated Sept. 15, show Republicans trailing Democrats by just 392 registered voters in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.
And many of those Democrats consider themselves conservatives, who in past elections have supported President Bush and both of Kentucky's U.S. senators - Jim Bunning of Southgate and Mitch McConnell of Louisville.
"What hurts Chandler the most is that people up here consider him a left-wing liberal," said Assistant Kenton County Attorney Brandon Voelker, a member of Fletcher's Kenton County fund-raising and campaign teams.
"Northern Kentucky is staunchly conservative."
Voelker points out that the only Democrat to consistently run well in the region is U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a three-term House member from Boone County.
"And most people consider him a closet Republican" because of Lucas' tendency to support the Bush administration's policies, Voelker said.
Chandler's campaign vehemently denies the characterization that he is a "left-wing liberal."
His handlers point out that as the state's two-term attorney general, Chandler fought to uphold a state ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions, and supported legislation that would make causing the death of a fetus eligible as a murder charge.
Supports legalized casino gambling, an issue popular in Northern Kentucky, according to independent polling.
Has raised $450,000 from Northern Kentucky residents, even though some big-name contributors to past Democratic campaigns - including businessmen Wayne Carlisle and Bill Butler - are backing Fletcher.
Spent a lot of time in the region during his two terms as attorney general and one term as state auditor.
Has a top deputy, David MacKnight, who is from Fort Thomas and lives in Edgewood. Stressing that none of his campaign work is on taxpayers' time, MacKnight said he takes pride in trying to deliver Northern Kentucky for his boss.
"Northern Kentucky Democrats know a Democrat governor is critical to maintaining two-party parity," MacKnight said. "National (Republican) economic politics are unpopular, and Northern Kentucky Democrats want to send a message."
Chandler boasts that he carried the region in his 1995 race for attorney general and 1991 victory as state auditor.
He also points out that in the May primary he received more "raw votes" than Fletcher, 8,110 to 5,130.
But in his analysis, Chandler is counting vote totals from nine Northern Kentucky counties.
The numbers narrow and turn against him when looking at results for the region's core and most populous counties, Boone, Kenton and Campbell.
In the 1995 attorney general's race, Chandler barely carried Campbell County and overall lost the three counties, 33,511 to 29,530, to Republican Will T. Scott. That was about the time the GOP began surging forward in the region's politics.
In 1991, ancient history in the rapidly changing local political landscape, Chandler fared better in beating Republican Betty Holmes in the race for state auditor. Chandler won the region, 25,941 to 20,508, and carried all three counties.
It was in that 1995 governor's race between Democrat Paul Patton and Republican Larry Forgythat the GOP muscle emerged. Patton won the race but lost this region badly.
Patton - who easily won re-election in 1999 against a weak candidate who did little campaigning - garnered just 24,506 votes in 1995 on the way to losing all three counties to Forgy, who finished with 41,682 votes.
Northern Kentucky Democrats suffered another setback Friday when state Rep. Tom Kerr, a Taylor Mill Democrat, switched parties and joined the GOP after 18 years in Frankfort.
"I don't think the same people who support Jim Bunning, (GOP congressional candidate) Geoff Davis and George W. Bush are going to support the Al Gore of the Kentucky politics, Ben Chandler," said Marc Wilson, a GOP political consultant and lobbyist from Florence whose clients have included Davis.
"This is Ernie Fletcher territory, and for Chandler to say or think otherwise is just wrong," Wilson said.
"And we'll prove it on Election Day."
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