LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A jam-packed and almost giddy Democratic crowd at a fundraising event here is the latest sign that the Senate race in Kentucky is for real -- and that 35-year-old Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has a surprisingly good shot at unseating the five-term Republican incumbent, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
The Tuesday event, headlined by former President Bill Clinton at a downtown Louisville hotel, drew an overflow crowd of donors and a scrum of national and local press for what amounted to the kickoff of this year's national battle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Grimes and Clinton entered the ballroom to the loud strains of Katy Perry's "Roar." Surveying the crowd, Grimes said with a grin, "Kentucky is Clinton Country."
She said she would run as a "Kentucky woman" on behalf of women throughout the state, and she vowed to bring youthful optimism and a new spirit of bipartisanship to Washington. Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, compared these times to the dawn of the Clinton presidency, when the country was struggling to climb out of a recession. "It was good-bye, recession, and hello, prosperity," she said of Clinton's tenure.
"Washington today looks just like it did in 1993. It's broken, with hyper-partisan people like Mitch McConnell calling the shots," Grimes declared.
It was almost as though the Obama administration didn't exist -- now or ever.
As she has from the start, Grimes stressed job creation, charging that McConnell had failed to offer his own plan. "My vision begins and ends with the middle class," she said -- though her most-repeated proposal is to increase the minimum wage, an idea that McConnell opposes.
And then the big dog spoke.
His voice reverting to its original, word-swallowing Arkansas drawl (he was, after all, speaking in the South), Clinton played the genial professor as he lectured the crowd.
He heaped praise on Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, for aggressively trying to implement the "health care thing." Rather than defend the philosophy of the Affordable Care Act, Clinton described the issue as a practical one, like repairing a car. The GOP's drive to dismantle the act, rather than fix it and make it work, "is a dumb way to run a country," Clinton said.
He presented the minimum wage issue as a matter of simple decency and fellowship as well as good economics. "In places like rural Kentucky -- or rural Arkansas -- good, hardworking people can't make a living," let alone contribute purchasing power to the marketplace, he warned.
Grimes is following Clinton's 1992 tactic of assembling her jobs-related proposals in a printed booklet, which the former president dutifully waved in front of the audience as a sign of approval. Her jobs plan is an "expression of trust in the people of Kentucky," Clinton said. The ideas in the booklet include the minimum wage increase, more money for early childhood education, adult training and stronger collective bargaining rights.
"I am here to tell you it makes a big difference," Clinton said, "and Alison Lundergan Grimes should win it, and with your help she will."
Neither of them mentioned President Barack Obama or his administration by name.
In an interview with The Huffington Post after the speech, the former president said that the jobs plan booklet was a simple but essential tool and a symbol of the Grimes campaign -- and a reason why she is doing as well as she is in the race.
Struggling to survive in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Clinton's use of a similar tactic helped save his candidacy, he said. "I was on my way to an event in Keene," he recalled. "They said a crowd of 50 or 100 would be OK, but 400 showed up and the reason was that darn booklet."
Clinton, who is advising the Grimes campaign regularly, read her pamphlet in advance and commented on the contents.
"It's one reason she's doing so well," he said, "because it shows a contrast with Mitch McConnell, who's not for doing anything and just obstructs things."
"Alison is growing as a candidate by the day," Clinton said. "She's getting better and better at this."
Speaking to HuffPost after her speech, Grimes declined to estimate how many jobs her plan would create, suggesting only that the possibilities were "limitless."
The jobs booklet makes no mention of the Affordable Care Act and criticizes Obama administration actions it says have caused the eastern and western Kentucky coalfields to suffer "disproportionate harm." If elected, Grimes said, she would challenge the administration on coal and other topics as necessary.
"I'll be representing the people of Kentucky, not a political party," she said. "And I'm the kind of person -- unlike Mitch McConnell -- who can deal with everyone."
At bottom, Grimes said, she represents change -- in party, gender and generation. "My grandmother has a saying that you can't heat a biscuit twice and make it taste good," she said. "That's Mitch's problem in this race."
It will be a hard-fought Senate contest. McConnell, 72, is a wily and remorseless campaigner with the money, the experience and the upper hand in terms of a traditional Kentucky rural culture that finds Obama repellent, even dangerous. Obama lost the state twice by big margins.
But McConnell faces not only a nettlesome tea party challenger in the primary, but also his own sour image.
According to the latest Bluegrass Poll by The Courier-Journal and other outlets, McConnell is even less popular and respected here than the president. Obama's job approval rating is an abysmal 34 percent. McConnell’s is worse: 32 percent. And the senator's personal popularity clocked in at 27 percent -- a sulphurous rating for an incumbent.
McConnell has spent millions in advertising so far pounding his tea party challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. “Team Mitch” has kept Bevin at bay, and few expect the challenger to win the May 20 GOP primary.
But the ad campaign has infuriated many Republican voters. Strategists will be looking at two key indicators after May 20: what percentage Bevin won, and what GOP primary voters tell polltakers about whether they'll support McConnell in the fall. If the first number is high (more than, say, 35 percent) and the second number is low (below, say, 50 percent), McConnell’s ability to turn out enough conservative voters in November will be in deep doubt.
The Senate minority leader’s numbers are only one reason why the Democrats in the state are so happy.
The Kentucky Democratic Party has put its history of bitter tribal disputes behind it, for now. Grimes’ father, former state party chairman Jerry Lundergan, has made peace with his longtime rival, Gov. Beshear.
Women activists and voters are excited by Grimes’ candidacy -- and formed about half the audience at the Tuesday fundraiser.
Finally, Kentucky, like many other places, has had it up to here with Washington, Congress and extreme partisanship. In many states, that has put Democratic incumbents on the defensive; in Kentucky, it's hurting McConnell.
For all these reasons, Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, likens Grimes to a jockey riding the great racehorse Secretariat. “All she has to do is not fall off,” he said.
This story has been updated with comments from an interview with Alison Lundergan Grimes.