Harper Trying To Build Early Steam In GOP Primary

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Paducah businessman Billy Harper has money and a message. And, as a relatively unknown gubernatorial candidate, he's hoping to coordinate both to his benefit in trying to unseat Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Once a political ally of Fletcher's, Harper has been setting the groundwork for months to challenge the incumbent governor he helped get in office three years ago. Leading that effort has been a statewide barrage of television commercials, which started while voters were already occupied with last month's midterm elections.

"I'm a business guy from Paducah," Harper said last week. "A lot of people across the state did not know who I am, so we had very low name recognition and we had a lot of work to do to get that up."

Harper is the only Republican so far to announce plans to challenge Fletcher for the GOP nomination next year. Harper hasn't submitted his documents but insists he will soon, while Fletcher filed his candidacy papers last week.

On the Democratic side, only Otis Hensley Jr. from eastern Kentucky has officially entered the race. Meanwhile, some of the top prospective candidates - including U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler - have said they won't run.

A construction company owner from far western Kentucky, Harper said he wants to preserve the governor's office for the GOP. Fletcher, Harper said, has been too politically weakened to win a second term.

With his 2003 victory, Fletcher became Kentucky's first Republican elected governor since Louie Nunn more than 30 years ago.

Then came May 2005 and the state merit investigation, which led to the indictment of Fletcher and other administration officials on misdemeanor charges stemming from the probe. Fletcher pardoned everyone other than himself, and eventually he and prosecutors agreed to a deal that dropped the charges against him.

Now, Fletcher's odds of winning next year aren't good, Harper said at a Capitol press conference about 20 steps from the governor's office.

"My chief objection to Governor Ernie Fletcher is he can't win the general election," Harper said. "Re-nominating him would be the same as handing the statehouse to the Democrats."

Harper's first commercials have dealt with his plans for improving education. While he didn't mark his limit, Harper said he's willing to spend "whatever it takes" out of his own pocket to win the nomination.

Still, the question remains whether Harper can build his name recognition with voters against an incumbent governor.

Having money is necessary, but candidates need more than that to succeed, said Mark Nickolas, Chandler's former campaign manager and a Democratic blogger. Often, self-financed candidates have failed for different reasons, Nickolas said, noting the $8 million that Democrat Bruce Lunsford spent in the 2003 primary only to drop out days before the election.

Nickolas said Harper's efforts so far have seemed "disjointed" and "unintelligible." Usually, candidates start by giving voters an introduction, but Harper launched with an issue ad, Nickolas said.

"For some candidates, they are used to being successful in a business realm, but the one thing that money can't buy you in politics is the embrace of voters," Nickolas said. "Money will certainly get you in front of them, but it doesn't get them to like you."

Nevertheless, Fletcher must consider Harper as a serious candidate because of his recent problems, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"Normally, someone in his (Harper's) position would be an extreme long shot," Sabato said. "Given Fletcher's troubles, Fletcher will have to take Harper seriously. He will have to take anyone on the ballot seriously."

Brett Hall, Fletcher's former spokesman, said that by running ads during the hectic general election period Harper may have gotten his name garbled with other candidates. To be a viable candidate, Harper needs a ground operation with supporters across the state, Hall said.

Advertising alone won't cut it, Hall said.

"Too often I've seen candidates that want to rely on that and invest in that and think that's going to ignite the prairie fire for them be disappointed," Hall said. "Certainly you do an air game ... but you've got to have people on the ground to win the war."

While maybe not all voters have paid attention to Harper's early ads, they're typically aimed at getting noticed by political insiders, Sabato said.

"People who vote in primaries are a very special group of people. They're not the average voter," Sabato said. "They pay close attention."

Harper said he's also trying to build a network. Whether the early advertising onslaught has helped remains to be seen, Harper said.

"The proof will be in the pudding when it's all said and done," Harper said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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