By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
HEBRON - Republican Sen. Jim Bunning held off a strong challenge by Democrat Daniel Mongiardo on Tuesday to win a second term, scoring a razor-thin victory following a campaign in which the candidates exchanged increasingly sharp personal attacks.
With all but four precincts reporting statewide, Bunning led Mongiardo by only about 18,000 votes out of more than 1.7 million cast.
Bunning, 73, a Hall of Fame major-league pitcher from Southgate, once was viewed as a lock to win re-election, but saw his edge slip away in the campaign's closing days.
"How sweet it is," Bunning said during his victory speech at the Airport Marriott hotel in Boone County.
"I want to thank everyone here this evening," Bunning told the cheering crowd. "Everyone, for their votes and their support."
Republicans had an anxious time watching results as Mongiardo dashed to an early lead that lingered well into the evening.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Jim Bunning is a strong closer," said Marc Wilson, a GOP strategist. "And he closed one for the GOP in Kentucky Tuesday night."
Bunning used a strong performance in Northern Kentucky and in rural Republican strongholds to overcome Mongiardo's lopsided advantage in Louisville and Lexington.
Bunning stressed his experience, his conservatism and support of President Bush.
Those factors were too much for Mongiardo to overcome.
The incumbent, who previously served in Congress and the Kentucky statehouse, called this his toughest race ever and thanked his supporters for their "vote of confidence."
"I'm humbled by the honor of your support and give you my solemn promise that I will work every single day and give everything I have to be the best U.S. senator that can represent you," Bunning said.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Bunning had 861,424 votes, or 51 percent, and Mongiardo had 843,011 votes, or 49 percent.
"Bunning owes a great deal to President Bush's margin in Kentucky and the help of senior Sen. Mitch McConnell," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Otherwise, he might well have been defeated."
Bush carried Kentucky easily Tuesday, and Bunning appeared with the president at a rally at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Sunday. Bunning wielded an edge in name recognition and campaign cash, but the Hall of Fame pitcher was put on the defensive by missteps that boosted Mongiardo, who began the race as a little-known state senator from Appalachia.
"Only in America can a kid with a funny last name from the mountains of Appalachia get a chance to do what I've been able to do in the past year," Mongiardo said Tuesday night.
Mongiardo, a doctor from the mountain town of Hazard, had a double-digit deficit in a poll in September until he gained momentum thanks to Bunning's foibles. National Democrats, sensing a chance to pick up a seat, poured more than $1 million into Mongiardo's campaign in the closing weeks.
Mongiardo branded his first-term opponent as ineffective. The Democrat also repeated his populist-tinged promises to help families strapped by high costs for health care, prescription drugs and college tuition.
"Jim Bunning can't talk about those issues because he doesn't understand those issues," Mongiardo said. "He's been out of touch with the people of Kentucky."
Bunning's big advantages in name recognition and campaign cash were offset by a series of gaffes and missteps that eroded his once-commanding lead in the polls and put Mongiardo within striking distance.
Bunning once compared Mongiardo's appearance to one of Saddam Hussein's sons. Then he made an unsubstantiated claim that opposition staffers beat his wife "black and blue" at a political picnic.
Bunning acknowledged that he hasn't run a perfect campaign but declined to elaborate.
"The only time I've ever been perfect was for about two hours in 1964," Bunning, a baseball Hall of Famer, said Monday in a reference to a perfect game he pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies.
The race got ugly late, with Bunning and his supporters accusing Mongiardo and his campaign team of spreading untrue rumors that the senator was in poor health and possibly suffering from dementia.
Mongiardo denied having anything to do with the rumors.
But then, on a weeklong bus trip last week, Bunning's supporters insinuated repeatedly that Mongiardo was gay by calling him a "limp wrist" and a "switch-hitter."
Republicans insisted the terms were not references to sexual orientation. Bunning did not use the terms, but he also refused to repudiate the comments.
Enquirer reporter Patrick Crowley contributed.
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