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July 27, 2011

The bully pulpit

Gubernatorial candidates gear up messaging for brutal sprint to November

After months of firing shots via press releases and sound bites, Steve Beshear and David Williams finally did so looking eye to eye.

Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB) held a gubernatorial candidate forum last week at their Louisville headquarters, a private affair where 32 board members quizzed the two men on a range of policy issues.

And it couldn’t have come too soon for Williams. With early polling showing him well behind in the race, his campaign has gone so far as to follow Beshear around the state with a poor staffer wearing a chicken suit, attempting to bait the governor into debating him instead of running out the clock, as frontrunners are apt to do.

While both candidates’ ads — a new round of which hit the airwaves days before the forum — have been tame, each side has amassed a fortune to saturate television with attack ads in the near future. The KFB forum provided a preview of what this should look like in the coming months: Beshear defending himself from presiding over a downturn in the economy with major job losses, and Williams defending himself from his reputation as a bully.

Preaching the gospel of tax incentives, Beshear wasted no time patching over his vulnerability. Citing his “Incentives for a New Kentucky” legislation of 2009, he touted the businesses that have expanded as a result of tax breaks. It’s a familiar mantra for Beshear, who rarely passes up a ribbon cutting or press release announcing a factory adding jobs, whether 500 or five.

It’s a tough argument to make given Kentucky’s unemployment rate has rocketed from 5.6 percent to 9.6 percent since Beshear took office. Though the rate has slowly declined over the past two years, it still hovers above the national average.

Williams zeroed in on this at the forum, blaming Beshear and President Obama, whom Williams claims the governor supports. He characterized Beshear as unwilling to make difficult decisions to improve the business climate in Kentucky, including reforming the tax code.

Williams advocates taxing “consumption instead of production” — much like Tennessee, which relies on a high sales tax and little-to-no income tax.

“If you live on the Tennessee line,” Williams said, “you understand what impact it has to be competing with people who don’t have a personal income tax.”

Williams mentioned Obama often, as he hopes to nationalize the race as effectively as Rand Paul did last year. While Beshear has been outspoken in his criticism of Obama and the EPA for daring to enforce regulations on the coal industry, Williams portrayed this as all talk.

“Who he ought to be fighting is Barack Obama,” Williams said. “I won’t just give lip service to fighting these agencies. I will enter litigation to stop the Obama health care plan, the EPA, the FDA, or anyone else who comes to try to make us not competitive.”

Although aggressive at times, Williams addressed his potential weakness.

“Now you might think I’m pretty tough on these situations and some people might say, ‘David, that doesn’t make you very likable.’ I am not running for the cruise director on the good ship lollipop,” Williams said. “We need tough leadership in this state.”

Williams’ reputation as an abrasive bully — a label applied by critics on both sides of the aisle — is a political landmine.

The day before the forum, Williams released his first ad of the general election — a soft biographical piece in which he expresses respect for his father and acknowledges personal shortcomings, a modest side of a man seen in public about as frequently as a sasquatch in the woods.

Remarkably, Williams managed to portray himself as too civil for personal attacks at several times during the forum. After Williams referred approvingly to Tennessee’s tax system, Beshear hit back with a prepared one-liner of Big Blue proportions.

“I don’t know the love that this fellow over here has for the Big Orange,” Beshear said. “I tell you, I don’t like their football, I don’t like their basketball, and that Jack Daniels is not a bourbon.”

Though irked by the jab, Williams countered by saying the governor shouldn’t “make jokes about that fella sitting over there liking orange” when “Tennessee’s creating more jobs than Kentucky.”

Beshear later went after Williams over expanded gaming, saying obstruction in the state Senate is crippling the horse industry, which Beshear characterized as “stupid.”

In turn, Williams — who once infamously referred to Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo as “limp-wristed” and a “switch hitter” in the heat of a Senate race — again decried such bullying. “Well governor, I promise you that if I agree or disagree with your positions on anything I won’t call your constituents stupid.”

But old habits die hard: In a press conference following the forum, Williams showed his teeth. Just after Williams took a swipe at The Courier-Journal in a fiery denunciation of the Jefferson County School Board (which he wants to abolish), the paper’s Joe Gerth began a question by stating Williams favors adopting Tennessee’s tax system.

Williams cut him off: “I have not endorsed the Tennessee system of taxation, but thank you for helping me, Joe. Next question. Does anyone else have a question?” Undeterred, Gerth continued his question, and Williams turned back, glaring: “Everybody, except for Steve Beshear, and now maybe Joe, possibly you, admits that the tax system in Kentucky has to be changed.”

It was a minor flare up, but here lies part of Williams’ problem. Widely considered to be at least 10 points behind, Williams needs to go on the attack to make up ground. However, not only does he have far less money than Beshear, he must do so without reinforcing the “bully” image.

Fortunately for Williams, we live in a post-Citizens United age of politics, where faceless, shadowy entities can do candidates’ dirty work for them.

The next joint stop for the campaigns also happens to be Fancy Farm on Aug. 6, where mocking and berating opponents is a virtual requirement.

While many voters will base their decision on the differences in policies, their preference often comes down to two factors: the state of the economy, and likeability. Over the next three months, Beshear will try to convince voters the economy doesn’t suck. Williams will have to convince them that he doesn’t.