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Miller leaves governor's race, endorses Beshear

Associated Press Writer

By withdrawing from the Kentucky governor's race, state Treasurer Jonathan Miller narrowed the political field and may have improved his new ally's chances at forcing at least a runoff, political experts said.

Miller, a two-time state treasurer, endorsed former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear on Monday, citing sagging poll numbers and dwindling campaign money. Miller also said he was hoping to prevent an "unelectable" Democrat from advancing to the fall election.

"Steve is not only an electable candidate but someone who will do an outstanding job for Kentucky," Miller said at a news conference alongside Beshear.

Miller shrank the crowded seven-way Democratic primary on May 22 at least a little, down to six candidates heading into the campaign's final two weeks. Miller's withdrawal, however, comes too late to have his name removed from the ballot and voters will instead be notified at each polling place of his absence.

A two-time state treasurer, Miller had been struggling to overcome low name recognition among voters. A poll by The Courier-Journal in February found that barely more than a quarter of those polled knew who he was.

Still, Miller said he thought he could have won, but that his continued presence in the race increased the odds that an "unelectable" nominee might get on the fall ballot, he said. Sagging poll numbers and dwindling campaign cash also contributed to his decision, Miller said.

"The odds are if I stayed in the race that there was a real possibility that the Democratic primary could produce a nominee who was unelectable in the fall - a nominee whose baggage would be picked apart and exploited," Miller said.

Seven Democrats are on the ballot for the May 22 primary as the party tries to unseat the first Republican governor in three decades. The others are Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith, former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, demolition contractor Otis Hensley Jr., Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford and House Speaker Jody Richards.

Considering the number of candidates involved, many have considered it virtually a lock that there would be a runoff election five weeks after the primary. State election law triggers a primary if one candidate in the race doesn't collect at least 40 percent of the vote.

Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, said it was uncertain which candidate would benefit with Miller now out of the race. It would probably serve as a "small boost" for Beshear, Lasley said.

It could solidify Beshear finishing in the top two spots, Lasley said. Whether Miller's supporters make the jump to Beshear is not automatic, but the two politicians share some approaches to government, Lasley said.

"I don't see it as an enthusiastic transfer of support but a practical one," Lasley said.

However, the move could ensure Beshear finishes with enough votes to make it into a runoff, Michael Baranowski, a political science professor at Northern Kentucky University, said.

"It's not like all of his support goes to Beshear just because he endorses him, but that sure puts him (Beshear) right up there even if half of his supporters go there," Baranowski said of Miller's supporters.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ernie Fletcher faces western Kentucky businessman Billy Harper and former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup in the Republican primary.

Fletcher drew the opponents from his own party after he was indicted on charges that he improperly awarded protected civil service jobs to political supporters. The charges were eventually dropped in a settlement with prosecutors.

While Fletcher maintained there was no wrongdoing, a grand jury's report determined Fletcher had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws.

It was Beshear - who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1987 - who most closely matched his stance on political issues, Miller said.

"I voted for him 20 years ago, I'll vote for him two weeks from now," Miller said.

Whether Miller's support translates into more votes for Beshear is uncertain.

Former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., whose son is Richards' running mate, said he didn't think Miller's endorsement would affect the race.

"It's sort of like getting your children and family excited to support your second wife," Brown said.

In his campaign, Miller has said Democratic voters need to choose a nominee who can beat Fletcher in November and billed himself as "the candidate without the baggage."

Miller acknowledged Monday he was referring to Henry and Lunsford when he said the eventual nominee might have "baggage" that would be exploited by Republicans.

Henry has long denied any wrongdoing but in 2003 agreed to pay the government $162,000 to settle allegations that he defrauded Medicare and Medicaid.

Lunsford founded the Fortune 500 company Vencor, which operated nursing homes and long-term-care hospitals before falling into bankruptcy in 1999. The company is now called Kindred Health Care, and is also a Fortune 500 company. In 2003, he sought the Democratic nomination for governor before dropping out late in the race and throwing his support to Fletcher, the GOP nominee.

Lunsford said Monday he was sorry to see Miller drop out.

"As the campaign enters the last two weeks of the primary, we are focused on winning the governor's office back for the Democrats," Lunsford said.

Henry put out a statement that said he was confident he'd be successful on election day.

Miller used the post to be a vocal consumer advocate and has testified before the Senate banking committee about financial literacy and the threat credit card debt poses to college students. He was prohibited by term limits from running for re-election.

Miller's campaign contributions for his gubernatorial bid were in the ballpark with other candidates. He had raised a little more than $1 million but had only about $186,000 cash on hand at the end of the last campaign finance reporting period, according to records filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

His withdrawal Monday left other Democrats hoping to win over Miller's voters.

House Speaker Jody Richards thought that some of Miller's supporters might now get behind his campaign, spokeswoman Jennifer Brislin said.

"We expect a lot of the people who endorsed Miller to now endorse us," Brislin said.

But Galbraith said he thought he'd be picking up votes, too. Galbraith said he and Miller shared a platform aimed at government reform.

"We're going to get the majority of his supporters into our camp," Galbraith said.

Associated Press writer Roger Alford contributed to this report.