Kentucky as Bellwether for Bush's Job Policies ; Tuesday's Vote Could Elect a Republican for First Time in 32 Years - and Be a Barometer of '04

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This sparsely settled valley around Burtonville in the rumpled hills of northeastern Kentucky is about as far from Washington and Wall Street as you can get. Yet people here do keep an eye on the national economy. For good reason.

Once there were four stores in town. Now Charles Hardymon's garage is now the only one open. True, there is a restaurant among the whitewashed buildings that pass for Burtonville's Main Street. But it's open by appointment only: In other words, you have to order the restaurant before you order your food. Overall, unemployment in Lewis County - named after Meriwether Lewis - hovers near 20 percent.

The perceptions of how much this community, and hundreds like it across Kentucky, are tied to the US economy - and how well that economy is doing - may help determine who wins a crucial governor's race here Tuesday.

The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Ben Chandler, blames what he considers the failed economic policies of the Bush administration for hardship in places like Burtonville. His opponent, US Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), not only supports the president's stewardship; he prides himself on being "Bush's man" on Capitol Hill. As a result, the governor's race here is shaping up as the most telling bellwether yet on whether Democrats might exploit Mr. Bush's handling of the economy in 2004.

"This race is about whether Chandler is going to be successful in making this a national economic referendum," says Joe Gershtenson, director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics in Richmond.

To be sure, there are local issues that will help determine if Republicans, trying to pick up governorships here and in Mississippi Tuesday, will continue a realignment of the South.

This being Kentucky, after all, personality, history, and lineage often mean as much as issues, and there's plenty of all three in this year's battle. Mr. Chandler has won statewide elections three times, and his family's political roots go back 100 years. His grandfather, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, was governor in the 1930s and later in the 1950s.

Yet Mr. Fletcher is formidable, too. A doctor and a pilot, the three-term congressman has decried ethical lapses of the Democratic administration in Frankfort. Though Chandler hasn't been tarred in the scandals - and, in fact, has done some of the prosecuting - his affiliation with the party in power hasn't helped.

"Issues mean less in Kentucky than any other state," says one longtime political observer who knows both men. "People here vote on the basis of personality and relationships and family."

So far, Fletcher is doing well: He's up by nine points with a widening lead, and many analysts expect him to take back the governorship after 32 years of Democratic control.

The Mississippi race is closer, deadlocked between Republican Haley Barbour and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D). Republicans may be poised for another victory in Louisiana, where Lieut. …