during the Fancy Farm, Ky., picnic on Saturday,
saying, “I don’t subscribe to Steve Beshear’s math and science program
that teaches children only to count to 21.” Photo by Josh Anderson for The New York Times
FANCY FARM, Ky., Aug. 4 — They came for the barbecue pork and the roasting of rivals.
The crowd of more than 5,000 gathered under a sweltering Western Kentucky sun for the 127th annual Fancy Farm picnic on Saturday as Democrats and Republicans took turns on stage taunting each other with mocking skits and sarcastic speeches.
Republicans sent a man dressed as Moses into the audience looking for the Ten Commandments, which they said Democrats took out of the schools and courthouses. Democrats started a chain gang marching alongside the stage to poke fun at a hiring scandal and a series of indictments that clouded much of the Republican governor’s first term.
In part a fund-raiser for the local Catholic parish, the raucous event marks the unofficial kickoff of a campaign season here that promises to be one of the feistiest in years.
Cloaked in the smoky smell of 19,000 pounds of pork and mutton being barbecued, the event was held on the grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church in Fancy Farm, a Western Kentucky town of 2,100 residents that got its name for its many elegant farms.
The afternoon’s highlight was a rousing performance from a rejuvenated Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who just over a year and a half ago was under indictment, had approval ratings in the 20s and had lost the backing of most of his party and Mitch McConnell, the state’s senior United States senator.
Staging a striking comeback, Mr. Fletcher (pictured right), the first Republican governor in the state in more than three decades, saw the corruption charges against him dropped last August and won more than 50 percent of the votes in the May primary. On Saturday, he smiled contentedly as Mr. McConnell took the stage to speak on his behalf as he seeks a second term as governor.
“Ernie Fletcher does stand for Kentucky and that’s why he’s going to have another four years as our governor,” said Mr. McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who had helped Mr. Fletcher win his first term but quickly had distanced himself when the governor was indicted.
A Franklin County grand jury investigation into the governor’s administration had returned 29 indictments, concluding that Mr. Fletcher had approved a “widespread and coordinated plan” to skirt state hiring laws so political supporters could be rewarded with jobs. The governor had been charged with criminal conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination, but the charges were later dropped in an agreement with prosecutors. Mr. Fletcher then issued pardons for everyone else who had been charged or could be charged.
Mr. Fletcher focused his speech on Saturday on Steve Beshear, his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 6 general election. Mr. Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and former attorney general, hopes to pay for his proposed education and health care initiatives by amending the Kentucky Constitution to allow limited casino gambling, and for the past six weeks Mr. Fletcher has made the issue the focus of debate.
As Republicans tossed casino chips written with “Don’t gamble on Steve Beshear” into the crowd, Mr. Fletcher warned that increased crime, divorce rates and bankruptcies would come with expanded gambling in the state.
“I don’t subscribe to Steve Beshear’s math and science program that teaches children only to count to 21,” Mr. Fletcher said.
“Senator McConnell, it’s only taken you a year but I’m glad you finally remembered Ernie’s name,” Mr. Beshear said.
As the state attorney general, Mr. Beshear wrote in 1981 that Kentucky schools must remove the Ten Commandments from classrooms in keeping with a United States Supreme Court decision.
“I obeyed the law,” Mr. Beshear said. “As governor, I’ll obey the law, and wouldn’t that be a great change, too.”
He added what he said his father, a Baptist preacher, had always told him about the Ten Commandments: “It’s not so important where they hang but it sure is important that you try to live by them.”
“And if this administration had been living by them,” Mr. Beshear added, “they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in today.”
In recent weeks, Mr. Fletcher has fueled his political rebound with advertisements referencing the indictments and depicting himself as the bookish young boy taunted by schoolyard bullies.
“Day after day he took it,” says a narrator in one of the advertisements. “Didn’t flinch because fighting is not his way. But he got where he was going. He held his head high.”
Jumping to an image of Mr. Fletcher in the governor’s office, the narrator then says that he stayed focused on the job and got things done for Kentucky.
But Mr. Fletcher has not put his troubles behind him entirely.
Last week, the state’s Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Mr. Beshear, and the organization cited the pardons made by the governor as part of the reason.
Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by roughly three to two in the state, and while one in three Democrats crossed party lines and voted for Mr. Fletcher in 2003, many had been partly motivated by a corruption scandal involving the previous governor that Mr. Fletcher had promised to clean up.