Tobacco stance could help, hurt candidates
LOUISVILLE - In presidential politics in Kentucky, how to play the tobacco card has become central as the race tightens.
The GOP sees tobacco as a way to drive a wedge between Kentuckians and Democratic nominee Al Gore. The Gore campaign, meanwhile, is still trying to figure how to deal with Gore's anti-tobacco record, which is an advantage in much of the country but not in tobacco states.
Gore was at a Labor Day rally in Louisville on Monday, but he avoided any discussion of agricultural policy.
Charlie Owen, chairman of Gore's Kentucky campaign, said he's confident the vice president will return to discuss agriculture.
''The vice president knows the importance of farming and tobacco,'' Owen said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell called a Monday press conference in Louisville as a sort of preemptive strike against Gore's stop.
McConnell singled out tobacco policy as the key issue against Gore in Kentucky and tried to gain some advantage for Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
McConnell said the vice president took the lead in advocating a Clinton administration policy responsible for the decline of tobacco.
''This has been one of their No. 1 domestic issues, to try to destroy the tobacco industry,'' McConnell said.
''And the vice president has been the point man in the administration on that issue.''
It's not clear whether the GOP strategy will work.
Lynn Carol Birgmann, executive director of Kentucky Action, a statewide anti-smoking coalition, said tobacco is losing impact as a political issue.
The days when tobacco was looked at exclusively as an agricultural issue are over, she said.
Policymakers at the state and the national levels now must take into account public health issues when developing tobacco policy, she said.
''I have serious concerns about tobacco farmers in Kentucky,'' Ms. Birgmann said. ''But the poor farmer issue is sort of losing power.
''And I really believe the era of trying to protect tobacco and agriculture - although it's still important - is waning in light of the big picture nationally and globally, which is the public health perspective on tobacco.
''And as either side - Republican or Democrat - seeks solutions, they have to realize that the answers for agriculture and tobacco and agriculture and health need not be mutually exclusive.
''We've got to figure out how to work together to solve the tobacco dilemma in Kentucky and other tobacco-dependent states.''
Penny Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, agreed that the tobacco issue doesn't play as well as it once did in political campaigns in Kentucky.
''I believe more and more people have been concerned about the health problems associated with it and how much it costs the state and the country in health-care benefits,'' Dr. Miller said.
Tobacco farmers are ''a vocal group and will always be a vocal group,'' she said.
However, other issues, such as health care and prescription drug benefits, also are important to Kentuckians, she said.
''I think one of the prime issues is going to be the health issue,'' Dr. Miller said.
''It just hasn't started playing yet. So right now, Republicans are focusing more on an issue that in the past has been so prominent.''
The Bush campaign still has to articulate to Kentuckians how it would deal with the tobacco issue.
That can be troublesome because since a position popular in a tobacco state might not be popular nationwide.
In the 1996 race, Republican nominee Bob Dole - during a Louisville visit of his own - said tobacco was no more addictive than milk.
That comment, while well-received by tobacco farmers, hurt him elsewhere in the country.
Ellen Williams, state GOP chairwoman, said tobacco will be an important issue because there are 15,000 fewer farms in Kentucky now than with Gore took office with President Clinton.
''Just because you don't like something, you can't try to regulate it out of business,'' Ms. Williams said.
''Bush would treat all farmers equally.
''He has made that abundantly clear when he comes to the state. He's not going to single out the soy bean farmer over the tobacco farmer.''