FANCY FARM - A record crowd descended on the grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church to take part in the Fancy Farm Picnic's rowdy political spectacle, which may turn out to be the closest voters come to seeing Republican Mitch McConnell and challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes debate each other.
The two candidates - who have yet to commit to the same debate - appeared for only the second time on the same stage Saturday at the 134th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. They traded jabs amid the chants, cheers and boos of some 5,000 spectators. The overall crowd estimate for the event was close to 20,000.
Grimes accused McConnell of giving up on Kentucky after 30 years in Washington, and led supporters in a chant of "Mitch McConnell doesn't care." Jobs took center stage in her speech, but she also worked in an appeal to female voters.
"If Mitch McConnell were a TV show, he'd be 'Mad Men': treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968, and ending next season," she said.
McConnell stuck to his theme of linking Grimes to President Obama. Supporters brandished signs that showed Grimes' face on one side and the unpopular president's on the other.
"(Obama) really didn't have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?" McConnell asked.
He also blasted the president as being out of touch with Kentucky's values.
"For Obama and his liberal buddies in the media, coming to Kentucky is like foreign travel. They can't tell the difference between a coal miner and a European male model," McConnell said, referencing a Grimes campaign ad that used a stock photo of a European model dressed up as a coal miner.
Supporters on both sides joined in the roasting, with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear - speaking at the picnic for the first time since 2011 - pausing to snap a picture of McConnell before he took the stage as the first speaker.
"I just had to get one last photo with the senator before Kentucky voters retire him in November," Beshear said.
Sen. Rand Paul, who took the lectern after McConnell, delivered a series of barbs in verse.
"She flew to L.A. for a Hollywood bash, she came home in a flash with buckets of cash," Paul's limerick began.
The tight race between McConnell and Grimes has drawn national media attention as the country's most closely watched U.S. Senate race, and organizers expected a larger, rowdier crowd than usual at this year's picnic. They beefed up security and asked candidates to encourage supporters to keep it civil - a request onlookers generally respected.
"When you approve of something that someone says, cheer. When you don't like something that somebody says, boo," instructed Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, who served as emcee at the event. "And then shut up and let them go on with their speech. Fair enough?"
The afternoon offered its share of hecklers on both sides, but there were also more moderate supporters to be found - many of them in line at the Knights of Columbus Hall for the event's signature barbecue, potato salad and pies. The annual picnic serves as a fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church.
John C. Elliott, a managing member of a CPA firm with offices in Mayfield and Grand Rivers, said he and wife Cathy attend the event every year because they have family in Fancy Farm.
"But I firmly support Mitch," Elliott added, citing the burdens of over-taxation, over-regulation and costly health insurance on small businesses. "It's time we take the country back."
Bill Bone, of Clinton, said he's been a Democrat all his life, but often finds himself voting against politicians with extreme policies, no matter their affiliation. He's been coming to the picnic for 25 years, he said, and enjoys eating the food and watching the sparks fly - from a safe distance.
"Ninety percent of people here today already know who they're going to vote for. It's a good show, but nobody's going to get his mind changed today," he said.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
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