GOP Ponders Sen. Bunning's Election Viability

Candidates are kicking off campaigns for the 2010 elections, and one of the most closely watched will be the contest for the U.S. Senate seat from Kentucky. Two term Republican incumbent Jim Bunning has announced plans to run again. That's despite concerns from GOP leaders who believe the 77-year-old political veteran may not be able to run a strong campaign.

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When Arlen Specter became a Democrat, it left just 40 Republicans in the Senate. That's the smallest number in three decades. So the GOP is trying to prevent further losses in next year's election. One cause for concern is in Kentucky and the seat held by Senator Jim Bunning. The Republican incumbent and former baseball star is trailing in the polls and he's resisting pressure to step aside. NPR's Adam Hockberg traveled to Louisville and has this report.

ADAM HOCKBERG: Jim Bunning was an all-star pitcher, so let's start with a baseball analogy. Imagine an athlete in the twilight of his career, someone who's been a top performer for years but has slowed down with age. Perhaps he's lost some zip off his fast ball or doesn't run as well as he used to, and fans start to think the team might be better off with a younger player in the lineup. In the political world, that veteran is Jim Bunning, who at 77 years old has won ten elections, but who some Republicans fear may be past his prime.

Unidentified Man: Please join me in welcoming our junior senator, Jim Bunning.

(Soundbite of applause)

HOCKBERG: So when Bunning spoke over the weekend at a Republican dinner in Louisville, there was speculation he'd announce his retirement. Instead, he reaffirmed his plans to seek a third Senate term next year.

Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): I hope and pray I can count on your support in the coming months. The battle is going to be long, but I am prepared to fight for my values.

(Soundbite of applause)

HOCKBERG: Bunning's vulnerability became clear the last time he ran, when he won by less than two points in a year George W. Bush won Kentucky by 20 points. This year Bunning's situation seems even more precarious. Two prominent Democrats are vying to challenge him. And he's raised less than a million dollars for a campaign that could require 10 times that. Republican David Williams, the president of the State Senate, says GOP faithful are getting nervous.

State Senator DAVID WILLIAMS (Republican, Kentucky): I would think that he should have been able to raise more money than he has. That's a little disconcerting. But electability is the issue, and people don't know whether he can win or not.

HOCKBERG: Frankly, one of the reasons for those doubts is Bunning's personality, which never has been what you'd call charming, and lately has seemed to grow even more unpredictable and ornery. A couple months ago he was forced to apologize for using profanity with reporters. He also was criticized for suggesting that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will soon die from cancer. Scott Jennings is a Kentucky Republican consultant.

Mr. SCOTT JENNINGS (Republican Consultant): I think Senator Bunning is someone who speaks his mind, but the nature of communicating in a political campaign today is much different than it was just four, six, eight years ago. You know, we have folks with cameras following every single candidate around and one screw-up can really cost you.

HOCKBERG: Several Republicans, including Williams, are thinking of running for Bunning's seat. And Kentucky's other senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been working behind the scenes to nudge Bunning aside. Yet if anything, that's made Bunning more determined to run. Bunning backer Larry Forgy blames McConnell's camp for Bunning's struggle.

Mr. LARRY FORGY (Bunning Supporter): They have stirred up this whole tempest in a teapot. Bunning's too old. Bunning can't win. Bunning said this. Bunning said that. And they are attempting to railroad him and acquit him. And he's not going to quit.

HOCKBERG: At the GOP dinner, Bunning refused to answer questions about the campaign. Instead he laid out a familiar conservative platform that included lower taxes, gun rights, and opposition to abortion.

Senator BUNNING: My friends, these core principles are under attack every day by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and President Barack Obama. That is why I am running for a third term to the United States Senate.

HOCKBERG: Bunning has left open the possibility he could still decide not to run if he can't raise enough money. But the big right-hander never has been one to walk away from a challenge. As a ball player he was known to start games on just two days' rest and was often among the season leaders in innings pitched. Now, as he nears the end of his political career, he seems equally reluctant to hand somebody else the ball.

Adam Hockberg, NPR News.

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