FANCY FARM, Ky. -- Republican Gov. Matt Bevin unfurled a prop to stress his anti-abortion credentials while his Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, portrayed the incumbent as a divisive figure for attacking public educators as the bitter rivals faced off Saturday on the stage of Kentucky's premier political event.
With a statewide television audience watching, Bevin and Beshear stuck to their main campaign themes while boisterous partisans from both sides cheered for their candidate and tried to rattle the opponent. With the general election about three months away, the stakes were high in what's shaping up as a tight race.
Beshear tried to capitalize on Bevin's long-running feud with public education groups that have railed against the governor's efforts to revamp public pension systems and his support for charter schools.
"What you heard from our governor today, and what you have seen every day of his administration, is try to create an us vs. a them," Beshear said. "Under a Beshear-Coleman administration, there will only be an us."
Beshear's running mate is Jacqueline Coleman. Bevin's running mate is state Sen. Ralph Alvarado.
Bevin stressed the abortion issue during his turn at the political speaking, which is a huge draw at the annual picnic -- a fundraiser for the local Catholic parish. A short time into his speech, the governor unfurled a print-out of an invitation to a recent Beshear fundraiser where one of the hosts was the owner of Kentucky's only remaining abortion clinic
"It was attended by the doctors that still kill children under the name of abortion in Kentucky," the governor said.
Bevin lambasted Beshear, the state's attorney general, for not defending the state in lawsuits challenging several abortion laws passed by abortion foes in the legislature. It was a repeat of Bevin's attacks on Thursday, but this time it came on the state's biggest political stage.
While Bevin adamantly opposes abortion, Beshear supports the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Beshear's campaign has said that ruling allowed reasonable restrictions on the procedure and Beshear supports those restrictions, especially related to late-term abortion procedures.
Beshear told reporters Friday night before a Democratic dinner that no contributions have ever influenced decisions made during his tenure as attorney general. Beshear has denounced Bevin for using "violent language" that the Democratic challenger said could get "people hurt."
Both parties' statewide candidates, all the way down the ballot, got their turns on stage Saturday. But it was Bevin vs. Beshear that was one of the most anticipated showdowns at Fancy Farm in a long time. During their time in office, Beshear has filed a series of lawsuits challenging Bevin's executive actions or legislation backed by the governor.
During his speech Saturday, Bevin touted the state's low unemployment rate and billions of dollars' worth of business investments in the state during his tenure. The governor also touted his alliance with President Donald Trump, and reminded Kentuckians that he has fully funded public pension systems.
"This is about a choice," Bevin said. "The question you have to ask yourself is this: Do you want to keep going forward or do you want to go backward?"
Beshear promised to change the tone coming from the governor's office.
"I will listen to you instead of insulting you," he said. "And I will always do the right thing. At the end of the day, I'm going to be a governor that governs by the Golden Rule: that we treat thy neighbors as thyself. And you know who our neighbors are? Everybody. Not just people that agree with us. Not just people in your political party."
Bevin saw his approval ratings slump last year after his failed attempt to change the state's struggling public pension systems. His comments about teachers and other public workers who opposed his ideas prompted thousands to protest at the state Capitol last year, closing schools in more than 30 districts statewide. Statehouse protests continued this year.
In 2018, he asserted without evidence that a child who had been left home alone was sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down this spring, connecting a girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by teacher protests.