FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell largely ignored his challengers at Kentucky's premier political showdown Saturday, aiming his criticism instead at President Barack Obama while touting his GOP leadership role.
His Democratic rival in the 2014 race, Alison Lundergan Grimes, and McConnell's GOP challenger went on the attack as they shared the stage with Kentucky's longest-serving senator at the annual Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky. It was the first joint appearance by the three, though they have been trading jabs for weeks in speeches and TV ads.
Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, portrayed McConnell as the chief Republican obstructionist and made her case for a change.
"If doctors told Sen. McConnell he has a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it," said Grimes, drawing cheers from her supporters and jeers from McConnell's at the raucous event.
Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, trying to capitalize on tea party influence in the GOP, declared that he would defeat McConnell in the primary election next May.
"I don't intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell," said Bevin, a political newcomer. "I don't intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell. I intend to run straight over the top of Mitch McConnell."
By the time he made the bold declaration, McConnell had left the stage. Bevin criticized McConnell for leaving the event early, starting a chant with the crowd: "Where's Mitch? Where's Mitch? Where's Mitch?" Then adding: "The people of Kentucky have been wondering that for quite a while now."
The stump speeches drew a large crowd of sign-waving, chanting partisans, signaling the fervor for a race that won't ultimately be decided until November 2014.
McConnell tried to score political points by criticizing Obama, who has never been popular in Kentucky. Republicans are trying to tie Grimes to Obama, and some Republicans in the crowd had signs that showed pictures of Obama on one side and Grimes on the other.
McConnell said the federal health-care law championed by Obama has been a "disaster for America," and he criticized the Democratic president for his administration's policies that he said are hurting Kentucky's coal industry. Kentucky is one of the nation's leading coal producers.
"I fought them every step of the way," said McConnell, who's making a bid for a sixth term.
Turning to a local issue, McConnell said that he — along with fellow U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield — forced the government to reverse its decision to halt fishing below the dam of a popular waterway in the area. Obama recently signed a bill imposing a two-year moratorium on barriers to prevent fishing in the tailwaters near dams along the Cumberland and its tributaries.
"You can't get any of those things done from the back bench," McConnell said, in the only criticism that appeared to be directed at his challengers.
"We're not just deciding who represents Kentucky in the Senate," McConnell added. "We're going to be deciding who runs the Senate."
Grimes said the GOP stands for "gridlock, obstruction and partisan," and said McConnell has been a key player in pursuing the strategy.
"There's a disease of dysfunction in Washington D.C., and after 30 years, Sen. McConnell is at the center of it," she said.
Grimes accused McConnell of voting against the interests of workers, women and retirees.
The Senate race is expected to shatter fund-raising records in Kentucky. It's unclear whether Bevin will have the campaign funds to mount a strong primary challenge to McConnell, who at last count had raised more than $15 million. Bevin refused Saturday to say how much of his own cash he will invest in the race, or how much has put in already. The campaign has been running a TV ad since he announced his candidacy last month.
The setting for Saturday's showdown was the shaded grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church in the tiny western Kentucky community of Fancy Farm where people started showing up on Friday. It's an annual rite that dates back more than a century. By mid-day Saturday, hundreds of people, many waving placards, had gathered in and around an outdoor pavilion.
The raucous event — a holdover from the days before television, when politicians had to seek out crowds to solicit votes — takes on the aura of a sporting event, with spectators shouting themselves hoarse heckling some speakers and cheering others, depending on their philosophies.