FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — One of the state's leading Democrats stepped out Saturday as a likely candidate for governor in 2015 while at the same time ruling out speculation that she might run for the U.S. Senate.
Former state Auditor Crit Luallen made the rounds Saturday at a church picnic in the tiny western Kentucky community of Fancy Farm, a key political event where generations of politicians have kicked off campaigns.
Luallen, who also served as executive cabinet secretary under former Gov. Paul Patton, made it clear that she is considering a run to replace term-limited Gov. Steve Beshear.
In making the statement, Luallen quelled widespread speculation that she would challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in his 2014 re-election bid.
"If I run again for office, it would be for governor," Luallen said. "I'm not in pursuit of the U.S. Senate race because I believe my background and experience and skills are better suited to Frankfort."
Luallen said she's in no rush to make a final decision.
"I'm talking to a lot of people and thinking it through," she said. "We've got some time."
Many of the state's top Democrats opted to skip the Fancy Farm picnic that draws thousands of people. Beshear is out of the country on an economic development trip. Other big-name Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, Attorney General Jack Conway, said they have family matters that prevented them from attending.
McConnell used the venue to continue his political attacks on President Barack Obama, urging Kentucky voters to help oust him in the Nov. 6 general election.
"Barack Obama's first term makes Jimmy Carter look like Abraham Lincoln," McConnell told a raucous crowd at Kentucky's premier political event, a church picnic that draws thousands of people to the tiny western Kentucky community of Fancy Farm.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo stood in for all the Democratic no-shows, slamming Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his recent overseas trip, saying he "visited his money over there."
The always lively picnic, now in its 132nd year, serves as the unofficial kickoff of the general election season in Kentucky and has been an annual rite for generations of politicians. In good years, the event draws more than 10,000 people.
A holdover from the days before mass communications when politicians had to seek out crowds, Fancy Farm has historically been the place where candidates kicked off their campaigns. Newspapers, television stations and other media from across the state cover the speeches, making the event important not just for front-runners, but also for lesser-known candidates who need to get their messages out.
Political rhetoric is always heated, and so is the wooden stage where sweaty politicians gather to take turns trying to shout their speeches over a verbal melee of jeering detractors and cheering supporters.
McConnell's speech sparked an onslaught of both. He has been sharply critical of Obama for his environmental, health care and economic policies.
"Our economy is growing slower than a soybean in the shade," McConnell said. "This is the biggest election of our lifetimes. We must elect Mitt Romney this year."
Polls show Obama remains unpopular in Kentucky, four years after losing the state to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and Republican Sen. John McCain in that year's general election. Obama's popularity doesn't seem to have improved. In this spring's Kentucky primary, 42 percent of Democratic voters marked their ballots "uncommitted," even though Obama was the only Democratic presidential candidate on the ballot.
Nationally, polls show that Romney and Obama have been running almost dead even for months.