BOWLING GREEN - Sen. Mitch McConnell talked about abortion, gay marriage and the persecution of Christians in Iraq with three well-known evangelical leaders Thursday, a rare discussion of social and religious issues for the Republican.
McConnell faces the toughest challenge of his 30-year career against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in what is expected to be among the most competitive Senate races in the country. The candidates have focused campaigns on supporting the coal industry, with both holding events in coal fields the past two weeks.
On Thursday, McConnell mixed it up. He attended an event that seemed to be tailor-made for him: a discussion at a Baptist church moderated by Southern Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood and Bob Russell, the founding pastor of Louisville's Southeast Christian Church, where McConnell is a member.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention has 2,400 member churches and about 750,000 members, Chitwood said. For about an hour, McConnell talked about his opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights, although he stopped short of saying whether he would support or oppose a Supreme Court justice's nomination based solely on abortion.
"On a large majority of the issues we've discussed here today, there is a very clear choice in the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky this year," he said. "I'm sorry my opponent is not here to express her views. I don't think I've misrepresented them."
Grimes has said abortion is a decision a woman should make "between herself, her doctor and her God." She supports gay marriage but said churches should not be forced to recognize anything that is inconsistent with their teachings.
Grimes helped serve breakfast Thursday to people at the Kentucky State Fair that opened in Louisville. Organizers invited her to the forum in Bowling Green - and two subsequent forums in Louisville and Somerset later this month - but the Grimes campaign has not said whether she would attend.
Mohler told reporters Grimes would not face a hostile atmosphere.
"What we want is an honest understanding of her position on these issues," he said. "It would be a most respectful conversation."
Grimes and McConnell are scheduled to participate in a "measure the candidates' forum" next week in Louisville sponsored by the Kentucky Farm Bureau.
"I look forward to debating Sen. McConnell," Grimes said. "I have said I'll be in (debates in) Beattyville and Pikeville and at the KET forum. It's Mitch McConnell who's refused to show up or respond."
McConnell spoke briefly about his faith, telling the crowd of about 100 people that he was baptized at age 8 and that he still has the saddlebags his great-grandfather used as a Presbyterian circuit-riding preacher in Alabama more than a century ago.
He blamed President Barack Obama for what he called the persecution of Christians at home and abroad. He said the recent violence in northern Iraq would not have happened had the president not removed American troops from the region.