COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Democratic gubernatorial candidates who gathered in northern Kentucky Tuesday for a political forum directed their sharpest criticism yet toward Gov. Ernie Fletcher, speaking as if he has the GOP nomination in hand.
None of the seven Democratic candidates even mentioned either of Fletcher's GOP challengers in the May 22 primary election. And two of them specifically presented themselves as the best option to defeat Fletcher in November.
House Speaker Jody Richards said political polls show Fletcher in the lead among GOP candidates, but, he said, "I'm targeting him because I think he's done a poor job."
Fletcher was indicted last year on charges that he illegally rewarded political supporters with protected state jobs after he took office. That indictment was dismissed in a deal with prosecutors, but a special grand jury said Fletcher had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws.
Fletcher has said that the grand jury's investigation was politically motivated.
The two Republican challengers, former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup of Louisville and construction contractor Billy Harper of Paducah, entered the race saying Fletcher is a weak candidate to put up against Democrats in November.
In Northup's latest political ad, she criticizes Fletcher for invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the special grand jury investigation and for pardoning members of his administration who were also indicted in the case.
The television spot shows five Democratic gubernatorial candidates with a narrator asking why they're smiling.
"They think their opponent will be Ernie Fletcher, and their commercials are ready," the announcer continues.
In the forum, Fletcher also deflected criticism that he has been traveling to political fundraisers on the expense of taxpayers. And although Fletcher said he is looking at reimbursing some of those travel expenses, he said he is always on duty as governor and as commander of the Kentucky National Guard, no matter where he is or what he is doing.
"I'm never not governor of the commonwealth," he said. "It's 24/7."
Both Northup and Harper are former political allies of Fletcher. Northup served with Fletcher in Congress. Harper served in 2003 as Fletcher's campaign finance chairman, helping to collect contributions that were instrumental in electing the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.
Northup didn't attend Tuesday's forum in northern Kentucky, a key Republican battleground.
Campaign manager Michael Clingamen said Northup was ampaigning in western Kentucky and wasn't able to make the event at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington.
That left Fletcher, who is seeking a second term, facing Harper in the hourlong forum that was broadcast live on local cable television.
The Democratic candidates, who participated in a separate forum just before Fletcher and Harper took the stage, strongly criticized Fletcher. Richards said Fletcher won his first term on the promise that he would "clean up the mess in Frankfort" but instead, Richards said, created "a bigger mess."
Former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, the chief proponent of casino-style gambling in Kentucky, said state government is now in a state of "moral and ethical decay," and new "competent leadership" is needed.
Democratic challenger Jonathan Miller, the current state treasurer, told a crowd of about 150 people that Democratic voters need to choose a nominee who can beat Fletcher in November.
"I'm the candidate without the baggage," Miller said.
Northern Kentucky is considered far more important to the Republican candidates than the Democrats because it is a GOP stronghold.
Northup has the endorsement of Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a northern Kentucky resident. Fletcher has been endorsed by numerous local officials.
Northup and Harper said when they entered the race that Fletcher would be a weak candidate to put up against Democrats in the November election because of a political scandal.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)