Matt Bevin, the conservative challenger taking on Senate Republican Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising McConnell dodges on whether Trump is qualified to be president Sunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval MORE (Ky.), hopes his opponent has stumbled onto his Dukakis moment of 2014.
Recent polls show McConnell far ahead of Bevin, but a gaffe could narrow his lead.
Bevin’s campaign is comparing McConnell’s awkward brandishing of a musket at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s (D) ill-fated tank ride in 1988. The indelible image of the liberal governor wearing a bulbous tank commander’s helmet helped seal his loss.
The problem for McConnell is Bevin is not the only one drawing the unflattering comparison. So is his hometown newspaper.
Bevin’s Facebook page juxtaposes a 26-year-old picture of Dukakis atop an M1A1 Abrams tank with a shot of McConnell last week holding a musket over his head on stage at CPAC.
“Sometimes, career politicians try a little too hard…” reads the caption below the graphic.
McConnell brought the long gun on stage to give to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as a gesture of appreciation for his support of gun-owners’ rights.
The photo op of McConnell hoisting the weapon like a defiant defender at the Alamo was supposed to rev up conservative activists. Instead, it has become a target of ridicule.
“McConnell just didn’t look comfortable waving the flintlock musket above his head,” Joseph Gerth wrote in The Courier-Journal, the main newspaper for Louisville, McConnell’s home town.
“Instead or recalling images of Charlton Heston at NRA conventions, where the late actor incited the crowd by raising a similar gun, McConnell looked a bit more like Michael Dukakis riding in a tank or President Barack Obama shooting skeet at Camp David, or Jimmy Carter doing much of anything,” Gerth wrote.
"There’s no question that it backfired. Everyone who saw it knew immediately that it was a big mistake. McConnell was clearly uncomfortable holding a gun and it looked desperate," said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of Senate Conservatives Fund, which has poured money into Kentucky to help Bevin.
The National Review Online reported Friday that it was not McConnell’s idea to carry the gun onstage. Instead, the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, asked him to present it to Coburn in recognition of him receiving the National Rifle Association’s “Courage under fire” award.
Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, touted McConnell credentials as an ally of gun owners
"Anyone who suggests Mitch McConnell is anything less than a champion of the Second Amendment either does not know the facts or is simply trying to mislead voters in Kentucky," he said in a statement.
The presentation came off awkwardly in part because CPAC organizers did not announce why McConnell was giving the gun to Coburn.
The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman, however, reported that McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, choreographed the musket scene and was initially pleased with the result.
“Jesse Benton was delighted with his handiwork. ‘Thought it went well,’ he told me after the Thursday show he had choreographed for Mitch McConnell,” wrote Fineman, a respected veteran journalist who formerly served as Newsweek’s chief political correspondent.
Josh Holmes, a senior advisor to McConnell, on Thursday tweeted that “Mitch McConnell ‘stole the show on Thursday by wielding a gun on stage,” citing a favorable review by The Washington Post’s political blog, The Fix.
Alexandra Jaffe contributed reporting.