What a difference a few years can make. Compare what the 2007 gubernatorial race is shaping up to be to the last time an incumbent governor was seeking a second term.

Well, actually, there aren’t many comparisons.

In 1999, the Kentucky Democratic Party was united behind Gov. Paul Patton as he sought to become the first Kentucky governor to be able to serve consecutive terms — following voter approval of a constitutional amendment. Patton was such a heavy favorite that he faced zero opposition from within his party, and the best the Kentucky Republican Party could come up with as a gubernatorial candidate was Peppy Martin, surely the weakest candidate for the state’s highest office ever nominated by a major party. The result was a cakewalk for Patton into a second term.

However, as Gov. Ernie Fletcher prepares to run for a second term in 2007, he not only is facing increasing opposition from the Democratic Party but also from within his own party. Lt. Gov. Steve Pence already said he does not plan to ride Fletcher’s coattails into a second term, and Fletcher has replaced Pence with state Finance Secretary Robbie Rudolph as his running mate in 2007. Ironically, Rudolph was former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson’s running mate in her bid for the 2003 Republican gubernatorial nomination. The Jackson-Rudolph team lost to the Fletcher-Pence team in that year’s GOP primary.

On Friday, Governor Fletcher’s top spokesman, Brett Hall, said Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Darrell Brock is part of a faction that “wants the governor out and has been working overtime on this for some time.” Fletcher asked for Brock’s resignation as state GOP chairman last summer, but Brock refused to step down and was given a vote of confidence by the party’s central committee. That adds credence to Hall’s remark.

However, just hours after his comments, Hall called the Associated Press to say he had misspoken. “I want people to know that I was speaking only for myself based only on my own opinion,” Hall said.

Shortly thereafter, Hall was out as Fletcher’s press secretary, a position that has been a real revolving door under this governor. That’s what a press secretary gets for speaking his own mind.

Then there is the silence of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the real powerbroker in Kentucky Republican politics. An early and avid supporter of Fletcher, Kentucky’s senior senator has been mum in his support of the governor in recent months, making one wonder if he has become part of that anti-Fletcher faction Hall mentioned.

Meanwhile, no Democrat has emerged as a favorite for next year’s gubernatorial candidate. Greg Stumbo has indicated he will seek a second term as attorney general, while Crit Luallen has said she has not yet decided whether to seek re-election as auditor or run for governor. Other candidates who may seek the Democratic nomination include U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, who lost to Fletcher in 2003, and House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook.

We suspect Democrats will be watching Fletcher’s poll numbers carefully in the coming months as they decide whether to challenge the incumbent governor. As for the governor having opposition within his own party, we think that’s doubtful at this point. After going 32 years without electing a governor, the state GOP probably is not going to risk losing that office by dividing its strength.

Nevertheless, expect voters to have a better choice for governor in 2007 than in 1999, when Paul Patton was really the only viable choice.

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