Bunning Says He's Not Ready To Back Fletcher's Re-election

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning said Wednesday that
he's not ready to support Gov. Ernie Fletcher's re-election bid
because "not all the players are in the game."

Bunning, R-Ky., said Republicans need the best candidate to hold
on to the governor's mansion and it may not be Fletcher. Instead,
Bunning said, he's waiting for decisions by some members of
Kentucky's congressional delegation.

"I want the best person that's available to win the governor's
race. Until I know who all the players are I won't know who the
best person is," Bunning said in a conference call with reporters.
"I'm not going to support an incumbent Republican governor unless
I know whether Anne Northup might run or Hal Rogers might run."

Northup, of Louisville, lost her re-election bid last month. Rogers represents much of eastern Kentucky. Neither has said if they will run for governor.

Terry Carmack, Northup's chief of staff, said the outgoing congresswoman "is not inclined to run but has received lots of encouragement." Carmack wouldn't discuss who had talked to her, but added, "She has not sought the encouragement."

"Those are private conversations between her and others," he said in a phone interview. Bunning's comments came five days after U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also declined to offer an endorsement of
Fletcher, a fellow Republican who has been embroiled in legal and
political turmoil this year.

When asked what the lack of endorsements from Kentucky's two U.S. senators means for Fletcher, Bunning replied, "It shows how far he has to come back."

For more than a year, Fletcher was caught up in an investigation into whether his administration illegally rewarded political supporters with state jobs after he took office. Fletcher, who maintained the investigation was politically motivated, gave a blanket pardon in August 2005 to anyone except himself who could be charged in the probe.

A Franklin County special grand jury indicted Fletcher on misdemeanor charges that were eventually dropped in a deal with prosecutors. But the grand jury's report, which was recently released, found that Fletcher had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws. Fletcher, who has tried to put the investigation behind him, filed his candidacy papers for the 2007 race last week.

Republican Billy Harper, a western Kentucky businessman and Fletcher's former political ally, has said he plans to challenge the governor. Harper is already running television ads promoting
his candidacy.

Veteran state Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, has also said he is considering a run for governor. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler said Thursday he would not seek his party's nomination for governor next year, which could set up a hotly contested primary.
Bunning said Chandler's decision is puzzling, given he has
almost no seniority in the House.

"If he thinks he is going to advance the cause of Kentucky more than he could by being governor of the commonwealth, that's different than 99.99 percent of the people who want to be governor. They think they can do more by making executive decisions," Bunning said.

Until Democrats settle on a candidate, Bunning said, the race appears "an open shot for anybody to be elected." Of the Democrats who have expressed an interest so far, including former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, none looks like a pre-emptive favorite, Bunning said.

"The former lieutenant governor? My goodness, he's got more problems than Ernie Fletcher. There's an attorney general that I'd rather not talk about," Bunning said. Bunning said he's talked with Fletcher about the race.

"He's not happy with me, but I didn't expect he would be," Bunning said.
Associated Press Writer Bruce Schreiner contributed to this

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)