HAZARD, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes turned to Bill Clinton on Wednesday to help insulate her from an unpopular Democratic president who is dragging down her support in the traditional Democratic stronghold of eastern Kentucky.
"I love Kentucky," Clinton told the crowd of nearly 1,000 people in the heart of coal country. "You've been good to me. You voted for me twice."
"We'll vote three times! Give us Hillary!" shouted Joe Write, who drove nearly two hours from Elkhorn City to hear Clinton speak.
Many in Kentucky wish they could vote a third time for the former president, who remains a popular figure more than a decade after leaving office. Instead Grimes, who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in one of the country's closest Senate races, has had to run a campaign distancing herself from President Barack Obama and his policies on coal, which have angered many longtime Democrats in the eastern part of the state.
Clinton subtly acknowledged Grimes' struggles with Obama's popularity, saying that McConnell is trying to make the race a protest of the final two years of Obama's term.
"That doesn't make any sense to me," Clinton said. "If I was hiring somebody for a six-year job, I believe I would think about what was best for me over the next six years."
Earlier in the day, Ron Easter traveled more than 70 miles to hear Clinton speak at a $200-minimum fundraiser that Grimes officials estimated would raise $275,000. Easter said he started out as a big Obama supporter, but he's "backed off" because he thinks Obama has "fallen down on leadership."
"I think that Grimes is, you know, I think she is that type of leader like Bill Clinton was," he said.
That's the message Grimes sent on Wednesday, with the Clinton fundraiser in the morning followed by a campaign rally in Hazard. Grimes' campaign manager, Jonathan Hurst, hinted to reporters that Clinton could appear in some TV ads with Grimes this fall.
"One label, though, that I will proudly wear is that of a Clinton Democrat," Grimes said.
Grimes shared the stage with more than a dozen retired and active coal miners from the United Mine Workers of America, which endorsed Grimes over the weekend. The union represents 2 percent of the state's active coal miners and is not affiliated with a mine in eastern Kentucky. But the organization does boast about 10,000 retired Kentucky coal miners.
"Mitch McConnell may be for coal, but he's not for the coal miner. That's the difference," said Buddy Miller, a retired coal miner from Browder who attended Clinton's speech in Hazard.
But Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's campaign said there was no difference between Clinton and Obama, pointing to a blog post Clinton wrote earlier this summer applauding the Environmental Protection Agency's new rules restricting carbon emissions on coal-fired power plants, rules that Grimes denounced along with nearly every other Kentucky politician.
"Evidently (Grimes) doesn't think eastern Kentuckians can execute a basic Google search to reveal that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and now Alison Lundergan Grimes have every intention of continuing to attack their way of life," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said.
McConnell will kick off a two-day, 10-county bus tour through eastern Kentucky on Thursday with Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who has represented that part of the state for more than three decades. Rogers has partnered with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to create the Shaping Our Appalachian Region program, or SOAR, designed to lift eastern Kentucky out of poverty.
Clinton received the largest applause when he mentioned former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, the longtime Kentucky senator who recently announced he is battling cancer. Ford, like McConnell, was a member of his party's leadership. But he treated Republican presidents with respect because "he believed he was there to get something done," Clinton said.
"I think Wendell Ford's way works better," Clinton said. "I choose Alison because she will work with people from both parties."