FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Three prominent Democrats took turns Saturday pitching their credentials as the strongest challenger to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin as they appeared before party leaders hungry to win back the governor's mansion.
Attorney General Andy Beshear recounted his record of beating Bevin in the courtroom. House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins cast himself as the one able to win back Democrats who strayed to support Republicans. And ex-state Auditor Adam Edelen touted his ability to promote a winning political message as Democrats seek to stop the party's losing streak.
The three gubernatorial hopefuls are trying to cast themselves as the one capable of winning in a state seen as a stronghold for Republican President Donald Trump.
Beshear, meanwhile, offered a new twist to the campaign on Saturday, calling on his rivals to take a pledge against running attack ads against each other ahead of the May 21 primary. A bitter primary would play to Bevin's benefit, Beshear told the party leaders.
"What he is counting on is a bloody, negative, divisive Democratic primary where the nominee limps out of it instead of surges into the general (election) to beat him," Beshear said. "So I say, let's not give him what he wants and needs."
Adkins told reporters afterward that he plans to run a positive, issues-oriented campaign. Edelen was more blunt in responding to Beshear's overture.
"I'm not going to sign anything put forward by an opposing campaign," he told reporters. "This needs to be a marketplace of ideas and it needs to be a race in which iron sharpens iron. And what we know in the past is that when we haven't had competitive Democratic primaries, it's been to disastrous consequence in the fall."
Pleas for civility often come from candidates who see themselves as front-runners. Beshear entered the primary with strong statewide name recognition from his high-profile feud with Bevin. He's also the son of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
The candidates lambasted Bevin's policies on education, health care and the economy during speeches to members of their party's State Central Executive Committee.
Avoiding any direct criticism of each other, the rivals also talked about the issue of electability in a state that trended heavily toward Republicans in recent elections.
Blake Brickman, Bevin's chief of staff, later referred to the three challengers as "recycled liberals with long track records" of supporting policies that held Kentucky back.
"Under Gov. Bevin's conservative leadership, Kentucky has experienced record job growth, record workforce participation and record low unemployment," Brickman said in a statement.
Heading into the election year, Bevin's approval ratings fell amid an unsuccessful attempt to overhaul Kentucky's public pension systems. That move drew massive protests at the state Capitol last year and prompted teachers to close schools in protest.
Edelen referred to Bevin on Saturday as "the worst governor we've ever had in Kentucky," and Beshear and Adkins were sharply critical of the incumbent. They spent time Saturday casting themselves as the strongest challenger to Bevin.
Beshear touted his track record against Bevin in a series of legal fights, including the attorney general's successful lawsuit to block a public pension overhaul law.
"As your attorney general, I stood up to this governor and I've shown Kentuckians that we can beat him," Beshear said.
Adkins said he has gone "toe-to-toe" with Bevin on policy matters as the top House Democrat. Adkins portrayed himself as the candidate best able to win back support from Democrats, mostly in rural areas, who have crossed party lines to back Republicans.
"I can bring back those Democrats in November," the longtime legislator said. "I can bring them back home. And I will if you give me the chance."
Edelen touted his ability to promote a forward-looking agenda, saying voters are "hungry for authentic engagement" and are tired of "boring, talking-point politicians re-rolling out the same boiler plate stuff."
"If we're going to beat Matt Bevin, it can't be just with opposing him," Edelen said. "It's got to be with a clear-eyed view of the future with candidates who personify their message and have the ability to sell it."
A fourth Democrat running for governor, frequent candidate Geoff Young, did not participate in the speaking. He stood outside with a sign as the speeches took place at state party headquarters.
On the Republican side, Bevin faces primary challenges from William Woods, Ike Lawrence and state Rep. Robert Goforth.
Kentucky is one of three states that will elect governors in 2019, along with Louisiana and Mississippi.