LEXINGTON, Ky. -- U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes turned to Bill Clinton on Wednesday to help insulate her from an unpopular Democratic president that is dragging down her support in the traditional Democratic stronghold of eastern Kentucky.
Participants of the $200-minimum fundraiser could buy throwback campaign buttons on their way in, including one declaring "Bring back peace, prosperity & Bill."
Many in Kentucky wished they could bring back the former president, who won the state twice and remains a popular figure more than a decade after leaving office. Instead Grimes has had to run a campaign distancing herself from President Barack Obama, particularly his policies on coal that have angered many longtime Democrats in eastern Kentucky.
"Not one time did Alison's opponent even give her the dignity of mentioning her name. He kept acting like she was a clone of the White House," Clinton told a crowd of about 750 people, referencing Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's recent speech at the Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky. "That man thinks that Kentucky has stopped teaching arithmetic. The White House changes every four years. It will change in two years, and this is a six-year job. He's actually hoping everybody will just check their brain at the door and forget you are hiring somebody to do something for the next six years that he has not done for the last 30."
During McConnell's speech at the Fancy Farm, he panned Grimes' inexperience, likening her to Mr. Obama, whom he said was similarly unprepared to assume the office he sought in 2008.
Grimes gave as good as she got, though, taking shots at McConnell's age and his role in helping create the gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Recent polls have shown a close race, with perhaps a slight edge for McConnell. A CBS News/New York Times survey last month found the incumbent at 50 percent support among likely voters, with Grimes not far behind at 46 percent.
The race is being closely watched because of McConnell's role as a GOP leader, but also because it represents one of the Democrats' best chances at picking up a seat in an otherwise-tough 2014 landscape. The results could determine which party controls the Senate in the next Congress.
Ron Easter traveled more than 70 miles to hear Clinton speak at the fundraiser on Wednesday . Campaign officials said they expected the event to raise up to $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 with coal miners in Hazard later in the day. 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. "It's remembering that before you're a Democrat or a Republican, we're Americans first. And together it is our responsibility to move the nation forward."
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.
"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.
The new EPA regulations have emerged as a major point of contention in Kentucky, where thousands of local jobs depend on the energy sector, particularly coal.
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 praised the SOAR program, saying a Democrat and Republican working together to help people is what the framers of the Constitution "thought they were giving us all those years ago."
He said Grimes would bring that same leadership to Washington.
"SOAR is something that needs to be done in rural Kentucky without regard to what anybody's position is on these EPA regulations. It needs to be done," Clinton said.