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Iraq will take a back seat to the economy, while promises of "political change" will ultimately drive Kentucky voters this November.
That's according to a sampling of elected leaders and political professors across the state, who expect the outcomes of this year's 2008 general election to be revealing - if not that surprising - in Kentucky.
Pollsters and political analysts predict the state will again be "red" this November.
Experts believe Republican presidential nominee John McCain will easily carry Kentucky's eight electoral votes - beating Barack Obama here by as much as a 2-to-1 margin, according to some predictions. Most polls also indicate that incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell will defeat Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford.
"But my personal sense is that it's going to be closer than what McConnell is used to," said Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University. Lasley gives McConnell a slight edge over his opponent, predicting he will carry about 55 percent of the votes.
Lasley said it has been a tough year for the GOP - marked by poor approval ratings for the outgoing Republican president, a souring economy and a growing discontent for the war in Iraq. However, Republican promises for reform have bolstered support for the party, and Lasley says they will likely fare well in Kentucky if they can just tell voters how they will improve the economy.
"I think you're seeing a couple things," Lasley said. "For some it's the gas prices, for some it's inflation, for some it's the stock market."
But nearly all Kentucky voters want political change, he said.
More Kentuckians than ever could help decide who can best bring that change.
As many as 2,894,299 Kentucky voters are registered to cast ballots as of Sept. 15, according to Les Fugate, spokesperson for the Secretary of State's office.
"We set a record in the primary, and this is a new record," Fugate said. More Kentuckians likely will register by the Oct. 6 filing deadline.
Registered Democrats account for nearly 57 percent of those state voters; Republicans comprise about 36 percent; and Independents make up less than 7 percent. And while registered Democrats in Kentucky outnumber Republicans by some 600,000 voters, it's hard to find any political insider that would give Democrats an edge here in November.
"McCain appears to be well ahead in the 17th District," said State Rep. C.B. Embry, a Republican who represents Butler and Grayson counties, along with parts of Hardin County. "In the race for U.S. Senator, Sen. Mitch McConnell appears to have a good margin in the 17th."
State Rep. Rick Rand, a Democrat who represents Carroll, Henry and Trimble counties, along with parts of Oldham County, also concedes Kentucky will likely support McCain in the upcoming election.
"I don't think there's any questions about that," he said.
But Rand thinks the race will be tighter for the U.S. Senate seat between McConnell and Lunsford. The winner of that race must convince voters how he will reform Washington.
"I think the main thing I find is that people want government to work for them. They just want a new direction and fresh ideas," Rand said. "They want someone who can work across party lines. People are adamant. They're tired of partisan bickering and they want change."
Kentuckians will be looking at the "big picture" this year, Rand said, carefully considering how each candidate will impact the economy, national security and other hot-button issues.
And big-picture thinking means there's no guarantee that Republicans and Democrats will garner the majority support from their registered constituents here.
"As odd as it seems, voter registration isn't the best measure of party ID," Lasley said. "There's a disconnect between state and national politics."
That would explain why a seemingly Democratic Kentucky overwhelmingly supported Republicans in the past few national elections.
Incumbent President George W. Bush defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin here in 2004.
"I think on the national level, voters are more likely to vote a philosophy," Rand said. "And voters are a little more conservative here."
Also, voters in national elections are more likely to break party lines as they consider the characteristics of each candidate, Lasley added. Age, race, experience and faith become more decisive factors for voters in high-profile elections.
Still, it's difficult for every voter to decide on a candidate. Kentucky has a large number of swing voters - a group any candidate must sway to claim victory - and as many as 30 percent of the vote may be undecided, according to some polls.
But no matter how you base your political decisions, Lasley said it's more important for Kentucky residents to get out there and vote.
"I think if people are voting because they think their vote is going to change an election that's not realistic," he said of elections dominated by the Electoral College process. "But voting builds political capital. Voting is an act - an expression of citizenship."
And what about those who don't vote this year?
As comedian George Carlin once said: They can't complain.
- Brent Schanding is reporter-at-large for Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. DeAnna Lasley of the Leitchfield Record contributed to this story.