Kentucky's Fletcher Fighting Off GOP Critics

In 2003, Ernie Fletcher became Kentucky's first Republican governor in three decades. His time in office has been rocked by an ethics scandal and criticism from his own lieutenant governor. But he's leading in the polls ahead of Tuesday's primary.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The future is also uncertain for the governor of Kentucky, a man who once promised to change a culture of political corruption.

Governor ERNIE FLETCHER (Republican, Kentucky) And, you know, I think we're I an era that we're going to put people above politics and people even above party in this state, because that's what Kentucky deserves, that's what we're looking for in the future.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: But Republican Ernie Fletcher became embroiled in his own ethics scandal, and now voters decide his fat in Tuesday's primary.

Here's NPR's Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH: One of Kentucky Governor Fletcher's most visible critics is his own lieutenant governor, Steve Pence.

Lieutenant Governor STEVE PENCE (Republican, Kentucky): I think we both came with the idea that we wanted to change the culture here - that is, we want to change the good old boy system. And I have come to realize that the governor's administration is simply what we came to change. He is the good old boy system.

CORNISH: Fletcher was accused of systematically bypassing merit-based hiring laws and doling out state-protected jobs to political supporters. When the governor issued blanket pardons to his staff to stave off charges and held a rally to celebrate the act, Lieutenant Governor Pence says that was the last straw. He refused to run for reelection alongside the governor and is even backing one of the Republican opponents.

Fletcher, meanwhile, struck a deal with state prosecutors to drop the case and in return took responsibility for the patronage problem. His approach has been to draw attention away from the ethics cloud and to focus conservative Republican voters like Christine Goble(ph) on his accomplishments.

Ms. CHRISTINE GOBLE: To be honest, I really don't think that he did anything that's not been done in prior administrations. Unfortunately, they just got caught. So personally, I don't feel that that really has any impact on what I think about him.

CORNISH: Goble was on her way home from work, just blocks away from where the final Republican primary debate was getting underway in Lexington.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Primary 2007 Republicans for governor forum…

CORNISH: Fletcher's facing two challengers in the primary. One is a former fundraiser named Bill Harper, and the other is former Congresswoman Anne Northup. Northup, who is backed by Senator Jim Bunning, says Republicans will have their heads handed to them this fall if Fletcher is the nominee.

Ms. ANNE NORTHUP (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate): Unfortunately, where we are today is that this administration has not been without scandal. And because of that, the Democrats are lined up to run against us.

CORNISH: Fletcher dismisses the criticism. He says Republican voters aren't buying it, and that why he's doing better in the polls than anyone expected.

Gov. FLETCHER: There's been over a thousand stories on this. Everything's been told. The people understand this was an unprecedented thing, the politics of destruction have been going on in Kentucky for a long time. And when we tell that story, people shake their head and said it was much to do about nothing.

CORNISH: But Kentucky is a heavily Democratic state, and if Fletcher wins the primary, he will have to persuade Democratic voters like Leann Mullins(ph) as well.

Ms. LEANN MULLINS: I was very disappointed. I had always been a Fletcher backer prior to that time. I helped get him into Congress, but I - there are just are too many things that I do not approve of it at this point in time. And the scandal did affect. I cannot deny that it didn't affect my thinking.

CORNISH: If Fletcher survives the primary, he will have to face down a newly invigorated Democratic Party that has made strong gains in midterm elections last fall and his eager to take back the governor's office.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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