POLITICS
08/04/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Bill Clinton Launches Charm Offensive For Alison Lundergan Grimes In Coal Country

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's a good thing for embattled Democrats here in Kentucky that Bill Clinton loves to play golf.

Because he does, and because his foundation supports wellness programs, the Professional Golfers' Association is giving him an award at the all-star PGA tournament that begins in Louisville this week at the Valhalla Golf Club.

When the award was announced last month, Clinton called the U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and volunteered to do an event.

So on Wednesday, the former president and 35-year-old Grimes will travel to the town of Hazard, in the hard-hit Eastern Kentucky coalfields, to explain why she -- and not 72-year-old incumbent GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell -- is a friend of coal. Clinton and Grimes will talk about how to spur the economy in Southern Appalachia, and how to revive, but also move beyond, its carbon-based industries. Along with the substantive discussion, Clinton will "bubba it up," predicts Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. "He is the best there is."

Kentuckians can expect to see Clinton in Grimes' TV spots, Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst told The Huffington Post. And the campaign expects the former president to be back in person in the fall, perhaps more than once.

As far as Democrats in Kentucky are concerned, Bill Clinton is still president, and Hillary Clinton soon will follow him in the office. Two words Democrats rarely utter voluntarily here, especially in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky: "Barack Obama."

Grimes won't win the coalfield counties of Eastern Kentucky, but she also can't afford to be blown out there -- and coal is key.

McConnell's scorched-earth approach to legislating has hampered his ability to reach bipartisan deals on behalf of "clean coal" and other technologies, and that has been one factor in the decline of coal-mining jobs in the state.

But the GOP, led by McConnell in Kentucky and in Washington, has spent millions depicting D.C. Democrats, especially Sen. Harry Reid and Obama, as remorseless Big Brother environmentalists out to destroy the mountain way of life.

That's one reason why the president's approval rating in the state is in the low 30s, about 10 points below his dismal national mark. And because most Democrats in the state don't rush to defend him, Republicans have a free-fire zone in which to attack the president, and potentially to drive his rating down further.

McConnell's strategy as he seeks a sixth term is to overlay Obama onto Grimes to create a single terrifying image.

"That's their entire strategy, and they will tell any lie they can to support it," Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear told The Huffington Post.

McConnell's campaign manager, Josh Holmes, put it another way.

"President Obama is unpopular here. If Grimes gets to Washington, she'll by definition be part of the party of the president and Harry Reid," he said. "That's the simple fact."

That's where Clinton comes in. The former president is a longtime political associate and friend of the Lundergan family. Clinton was among those who initially encouraged Grimes to run for Senate, and her father was once state party chair and an early Clinton supporter. Grimes is running, in essence, as a Clinton Democrat: pro-business, culturally cautious, intimate with voters, but practical rather than ideological.

Clinton has kept close ties to and remains very popular in the state; a popularity his wife, Hillary, also enjoys. Democrats here are convinced that, should she run for president in 2016, she could be the first Democrat to carry Kentucky since her husband did it twice in the '90s.

"She'd extend the presidential playing field in interesting ways," said Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, speaking of Hillary. "And she can win here."

If Grimes pulls off the upset, one is sure to see her in the early photo ops standing alongside not only Bill Clinton, but his wife, too.

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