By ROGER ALFORD
Associated Press Writer
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Ernie Fletcher was the fresh face voters wanted four years ago when he swept into the Kentucky governor's office on the promise that he would "clean up the mess in Frankfort."
Disappointed by his predecessor's extramarital affair, voters embraced Fletcher, an ordained Baptist minister, electing him as Kentucky's first Repubulican governor in more than 30 years.
But Fletcher's luster wore thin when a special grand jury indicted him on charges that he violated state hiring laws in a scheme to reward political supporters with state jobs. Now Fletcher is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Steve Beshear, who built his primary election campaign around a proposal to legalize casinos.
Political scientist Larry Sabato said the outcome of the Nov. 6 election could be an indicator of the nation's political climate leading up to next year's presidential race. Kentucky has voted with the winner in every presidential election since 1964.
"When you're running as a challenger, you promise to clean up the system," Sabato said. "Fletcher did that as a challenger, and now Beshear has the same opportunity. That's one of the few advantages a challenger has."
Beshear is hammering away at the Republican administration's hiring scandal. His first television ad of the general election campaign shows him standing in front of the state Capitol and gesturing toward the domed building, echoing the words similar to those used previously by Fletcher. In the ad, Beshear vows "to finally clean this place up."
Fletcher is framing the election as a referendum on casinos rather than on his first term. He says Kentuckians who don't want casinos should vote for him, and that those who do should support Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Campaigning across the state on a "No Casinos" tour, Fletcher says gambling would contribute to bankruptcies, divorce and crime. He said Kentuckians would have to lose $1.5 billion at casinos to generate the $500 million a year in additional state revenue that Beshear is predicting.
"He's putting all of his promises to Kentucky on casino gambling," Fletcher said during a radio debate this week.
Beshear says taxes from casinos could help fund education, health care, economic development and other initiatives. He said Kentuckians already spend huge amounts at casinos over the state line in Indiana and Illinois.
"My position is, let's just bring it home and use it for our folks," Beshear said.
Beshear, the son of a small-town Baptist preacher, is attempting a political comeback more than a decade after his name last appeared on a Kentucky ballot. He lost races for governor in 1987 and U.S. senator in 1996.
Kentucky is famed for its horse racing, but opening the state to casino gambling would require amending the state's constitution, which Beshear favors.
Fletcher had said he would not oppose efforts to put such a measure on the ballot, but abruptly changed his stance during the primary, citing his personal opposition to gambling. He says he'll fight any effort to change the constitution and that casinos won't come on his watch.
In his latest ad, Fletcher highlights an Illinois woman who went to prison for embezzling $241,000 to feed a gambling addition. Beshear spokeswoman Vicki Glass said Fletcher was trying "to keep the spotlight on other people's illegal activities to keep it off his own."
The grand jury that indicted Fletcher alleged the governor had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws. The goal, according to the panel, was to reward Fletcher's GOP political supporters with protected state jobs at the expense of state workers who backed his opponent.
Fletcher claimed the Democratic state attorney general pursued the case for political gain.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)