By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Start with loads of barbecue. Spice it with fiery political rhetoric. Add in throngs of partisans ready to cheer or jeer on cue.
Those are key ingredients for the Fancy Farm picnic in far western Kentucky - the traditional kickoff of the state's fall campaign and scene of rollicking political theater.
The 127th edition of the storied picnic at St. Jerome Catholic Church is Saturday and is expected to attract 10,000 to 15,000 people, organizers said. The main event will speeches by the candidates for governor, Republican incumbent Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Steve Beshear.
The rivals agree on one thing - they expect the usual spirited give-and-take, despite pleas by this year's emcee, Senate President David Williams, for a tamer atmosphere.
"It's a time that folks go down there and poke a little fun, use a little humor to point out some differences," Fletcher said. "Hopefully that'll occur this time, and everybody will walk away with a little better idea of what the candidates stand for."
Beshear, a former attorney general and lieutenant governor, said he was looking forward to "engaging in the political frolic that's to come."
"I'm sure there will be heckling and yelling and screaming and carrying on, but that's just all part of it," he said.
Mark Wilson, organizer of the political speaking at the picnic, said he appreciated Williams' gesture, but added, "How effective that will be, that's yet to be determined."
He said organizers expect the picnic's largest crowd since 2003 - the last governor's race. Wilson attributes most of the heckling to political supporters brought in by campaigns. He said "it doesn't hurt to hoot and holler some," as long as it doesn't get out of hand.
"If they were all just 100 percent nice, it'd kind of make for a boring picnic," he said. "You've got to have a little bit of spice to it. Just don't cross the line with it."
The picnic's renown as a lively political gathering extends beyond the state's borders.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said it's a "throwback" to another political era. "People enjoy that personal contact, instead of e-mail, direct mail and automated phone calls," he said.
And how a candidate performs under pressure can be telling.
"If you're in politics, you have to be tough," Sabato said. "Events like Fancy Farm show that candidates can be tough and articulate and funny, or not."
The picnic took some heat recently from U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who said he might never attend again and complained that the event had become "completely out of control."
Kentucky's other U.S. senator, Republican Mitch McConnell, told reporters Thursday that he enjoys the picnic, and plans to be there Saturday unless the Senate is still in session.
McConnell, the Senate minority leader and a key strategist behind the GOP rise to power in Kentucky, said he's seen changes in the partisan makeup of the crowd since his first Senate race in 1984.
"My party's come a long way since then in getting more active and having more people show up," he said. "It used to be pretty one-sided down there, but it's gotten better."
Though outnumbered in voter registration, Kentucky Republicans hold the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, four of six congressional seats and a majority in the state Senate.
Those unable to attend can still listen in. Kentucky Educational Television says it will provide three hours of live online video streaming from the picnic Saturday afternoon.
Not all the focus will be on politics at this year's picnic, however. The Food Network plans on sending a crew to prepare a feature on the barbecue dinner served to visitors.
Picnic organizers don't plan on disappointing. Picnic chairman Todd Hayden said organizers will prepare thousands of pounds of mutton, pork and chicken. Also on the menu will be homegrown corn, green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. Homemade pies and cakes will top off the meal. The picnic is a fundraiser for the Catholic parish and community activities.
Associated Press writer Joe Biesk in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)