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March Madness strikes Kentucky politics -- boo, Duke

March 16, 2010 |  8:12 am

Trey Grayson started it.

As soon as the NCAA men's brackets were announced, Kentucky's Republican secretary of State was up with an Internet ad assailing his opponent in the Senate primary -- Rand Paul. Not because he's the son of presidential candidate Ron Paul, the darling of Libertarians everywhere, or because he has never held public office before, but because he's a graduate of Duke Medical School. Take a look.

The basketball rivalry between the University of Kentucky and Duke dates back at least to 1992, when  Christian Laettner's shot at the buzzer gave Duke a 104-103 win over Kentucky in what some still call the greatest college basketball game in history. Laettner, still reviled in the Blue Grass State, is not on the ballot. So candidates in both parties are trying to tar each other with the dirt of Duke affiliation. The subtext, always popular in American politics: Duke is for elitists, Kentucky for real folks.

Paul, an eye surgeon making his maiden run for office, tried to make light of the slur. "Well, I guess that might be a real issue if you're running for student council," he said in a statement. "It's especially funny watching my Harvard-educated opponent complain about where I went to medical school."

Ouch.

Not to be outdone, Democrats have also gotten into the act. Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo offered a "friendly wager" Monday to his primary opponent, Atty. Gen. Jack Conway, over whether Kentucky (Mongiardo's alma mater) or Duke (Conway's) would advance. But the bet was Mongiardo's not-so-subtle attempt to remind voters that Conway had a more privileged background, promising to be a Kentucky Wildcat and would "stand up and fight for people who eat barbecue with a fork, not caviar with a silver spoon."

All of this might be part of the silly season in politics, but University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross thinks the attacks could actually change hearts and minds. "Many Big Blue fans have horrible memories about Duke," he told KentuckySports.com. "It could make a difference to some Kentucky fans."

Hey, it's March.

-- Johanna Neuman

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