MAYFIELD, Ky. — The annual picnic at Fancy Farm always serves up a main dish of politics along with a side of delicious barbecue. And this year voters will get a rare glimpse of Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates standing side by side as they face armies of hecklers trying to move them off their talking points.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, will share the same stage for only the second time. One of the most-watched races in the country, it could weigh heavily on which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term.
Their scripted, crowd-controlled campaigns could go anywhere during their appearances Saturday along with other political speakers at the 134th annual picnic, a major draw for political types. McConnell is in the toughest re-election race of his career, making this year's event even bigger than usual.
Nominally a fundraiser for a small Roman Catholic church in western Kentucky, the two-day picnic in the tiny town of Fancy Farm is a throwback to the days before television, when stump speeches were the candidates' main vehicle to reach voters.
"There used to be actual voters in the audience you could persuade to be for you. But in the last 20 years or so, it's just turned into who can bring the most people and scream the loudest and come up with the craziest antics," said veteran Kentucky Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe said. "It's turned into, I think, a circus."
McConnell is expected to continue to try to connect Grimes with Obama, who remains unpopular in Kentucky despite Democrats having a wide advantage over the GOP in registered voters. His campaign has focused mostly on highlighting how a vote for Grimes would be a vote for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., while McConnell would continue to fight against the president's policies.
Obama lost the state in the 2012 presidential race, garnering only 37.8 percent of the vote to 60.5 percent for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Grimes, meanwhile, is expected to hammer McConnell on pocketbook issues, including his opposition to raising the federal minimum wage and his vote to block a bill earlier this year that would have allowed some college students to refinance their student loans.
She has portrayed herself as an independent "Kentucky woman" who won't be beholden to a Democratic president.
Issues aside, the candidate' main goal may be not to lose their cool in the intimidating atmosphere and say something that could come back to haunt them.
"It don't really make a lot of difference what you say at Fancy Farm. It's all theater," said state Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, who is the master of ceremonies of the event. "No one ever wins elections on what they say at Fancy Farm, but they may have come close (to losing)."