Bluegrass battle carries risks in Kentucky
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The long-awaited battle of the Bluegrass is must-see TV Monday evening. 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump urges GOP to fight for him Senate Dems signal they'll support domestic spending package Trump's top picks for Homeland Security chief are ineligible for job: reports MORE (R-Ky.) and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes both have much to prove in their sole Senate debate after rough statewide interviews last week. 

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The GOP leader was panned for a hostile performance on the state’s largest sports call-in radio show, and Grimes took considerable heat for repeatedly avoiding saying whether or not she voted for President Obama in her interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board. 

In the only debate of their bitter and expensive contest, analysts and even Democrats privately say it’s Grimes who must shed the perception that she avoids answering tough questions — which her rocky interview last week only underscored. 

Veteran political reporter and University of Kentucky professor Al Cross said although McConnell maybe did come across a “little too huffy” with host Matt Jones on Kentucky Sports Radio on Wednesday, it was Grimes who had the worse week. 

“I do know that the refusal to say whether or not she voted for Obama is not playing well,” Cross said. “Not because of the substance but because of her inability to articulate a sensible answer to tough questions. She’s got to be able to do that Monday night or she’s toast.”

Asked directly three times whether she voted for Obama, Grimes repeatedly refused to answer, saying instead that Obama is not on the ballot this fall and defending the "sanctity of the ballot box." She emphasized that she was a Clinton Democrat — Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE will campaign for her on Wednesday— but wouldn’t say whether she voted for Obama even though she was a delegate for him in 2012. 

Her response was widely panned. NBC’s “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd said Grimes had "disqualified herself" by refusing to say whether she voted to elect President Obama.  

Other Democrats expressed frustration with what they saw as further evidence of a poorly-run campaign with advisers who have repeatedly allowed Grimes to back herself into needless blunders.

One national Democratic operative, granted anonymity to speak freely, said while the quote itself might not bring down her bid, it reveals her advisers might. 

"I don't think it's an incident that will really matter in the end, but it's certainly a revealing one. She seems constantly ill-prepared, even for simple questions, and that comes down on the people around her. She still has a great shot to pull off an upset, but if she does, it will be in spite of her political advisers, not because of them," the operative said.

“She’s sink or swim on Monday night — if he buries her, he buries her Monday night,” said another state Democratic strategist. 

Grimes’s misstep follows the most recent Bluegrass Poll, released last week, showing the race was a dead heat — Grimes led 46 to 44 percent — even though a string of other surveys had shown McConnell opening up a steady lead. 

"Alison Lundergan Grimes looks forward to the opportunity to hold Mitch McConnell accountable for his failed 30-year Washington record. At Monday's debate, you will see two very different philosophies: Alison, who stands up for working families, and Mitch McConnell, who stands up for millionaires, billionaires and Washington insiders,” Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst said in a statement to The Hill. “The debate will further prove why Alison will win this race. She has a strong command of the issues, she's passionate about helping people, and she cares about Kentucky."

The McConnell campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Kentucky Democratic strategist Sherman Brown pointed out that the other 56 minutes of the Courier-Journal editorial board interview were substantive and the secretary of state answered all other questions asked of her. 

“Alison Grimes has withstood the barrage of negative television ads that were paid for by outside money. And against all that, this race is still neck-and-neck,” Brown said. “The fact that this race is still a tossup has to be frustrating to the other side. Voters aren’t happy with our leaders in Washington. The [Kentucky Educational Television] debate is another opportunity for Grimes to highlight her enthusiasm and ability to get things done that will benefit Kentuckians.”

While this will be their only debate, McConnell is the more experienced sparring partner on the stage, with his nearly three decades in Congress. Grimes got better reviews at this summer’s Fancy Farm event, the state’s annual raucous political roast, but both sides know the would-be majority leader will be on the defensive about his record in Washington and will have to tread carefully. 

“[McConnell] needs to avoid looking like he’s beating up on a woman, he needs to be a little less huffy than he was on the sports talk show, he needs to not sound arrogant or entitled and he’s pretty good at doing that,” Cross said. “He knows how to play the crowd and be humble. I expect we will see a perfectly good performance from him — the real question is [Grimes]. She’s got a whole lot more at stake in this debate than he does.” 

The Senate debate begins at 8 p.m. and will be carried live on C-SPAN. 

— Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.