In Kentucky Senate race, will verve upend sure-footed experience?

By now, voters in my home state of Kentucky are as sick of the 2014 midterm game as voters in other battleground states. But they can take pride in having candidates who know how to play.

In the sole debate Monday night of their tightly fought Senate race, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Sen. Mitch McConnell gave sharp, effective presentations of familiar campaign themes. Viewers may not have heard much new information, but the visual contrast will inform their votes next month just the same.

Minority Leader U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) rehearse with host Bill Goodman before their debate on 'Kentucky Tonight' at the KET Network Center on October 13, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky. Voters go to the polls on November 4, 2014.
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Minority Leader U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) rehearse with host Bill Goodman before their debate on 'Kentucky Tonight' at the KET Network Center on October 13, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky. Voters go to the polls on November 4, 2014.

Democrat Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, cast the Senate minority leader as a tool of partisan and big-money interests. Just 35, she projected energy and enthusiasm in taking on the man who has represented the state in the Senate since she was 5 years old.

"Senator McConnell's 30-year recordit's gridlock, it's obstruction, it's extreme partisanship that's cost this nation a 16-day government shutdown," she said, tying the incumbent to the Washington dysfunction voters have come to loathe. "We can't afford to go in that direction. My record speaks for itself. I'm an independent thinker who does what's right for the people of Kentucky, not partisan politics."

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McConnell, who hopes to lead a new Republican majority next January, cast Grimes as a tool of President Barack Obama and national Democratic constituencies seeking to crimp Kentucky coal industry in the name of curbing climate change. He did so with calm and command and an absence of any hint of condescension that might fuel Democrats' "war on women" attacks.

"Secretary Grimes' whole campaign has been designed to deceive people into thinking she's something she isn't," he said. "It's pretty obvious where her support comes fromall the anti-coal activists in the countrythat she's going to do their bidding."

Each found use for a bit of camouflage. She persisted in refusing to say whether she voted for Obama, who's now even more unpopular in Kentucky than when he lost the state badly to Mitt Romney two years ago. He refused to say whether or not climate change is real, hoping not to offend the coal industry while not leading college-educated suburban voters to think he's anti-science. In a similar vein, McConnell vowed to seek repeal of Obamacare while allowing that it's "fine" for Kentucky—whose Democratic governor has successfully implemented it—to preserve its version.

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Moderator Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television skillfully pressed the candidates to break new ground.The fact that he failed owed not to his shortcomings but to their discipline.

Which leaves a dwindling group of undecided voters to choose: youth, verve and change, or sure-footed experience aiming to safeguard Kentucky's economic traditions? The answer comes three weeks from Tuesday.