WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Bunning acknowledged Tuesday that during a meeting in December, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told him that "I was too old and I couldn't win" a re-election battle in 2010.
Bunning, 77, went on to call McConnell a "control freak." He also said he'll fare well in Kentucky without McConnell's endorsement in the Republican primary, since during the senior senator's tenure as a member of the GOP leadership the Republicans have lost several seats and could lose more in 2010.
"If Mitch McConnell doesn't endorse me that may be the best thing that could happen to me in Kentucky," he told reporters during a conference call Tuesday.
As he has in the past, McConnell skirted questions during a TV interview Sunday on whether he'll endorse Bunning. Bunning is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent seeking re-election to the Senate in 2010.
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"It's just not clear exactly who the players are going to be in Kentucky," McConnell told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace.
Bunning said it would be kind to call his relationship with McConnell strained.
"I said no to him and he doesn't like people who say no to him," Bunning said.
For months, Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher, has publicly sparred with party leaders, including McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn of Texas over his re-election bid.
Until now, the issue of age was a matter that was largely absent from the increasingly tense and public back and forth between the state's junior and senior senators. Bunning says he considered McConnell's suggestion that the junior senator is too old to run for re-election unfair, since the senate minority leader supported Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's 2010 re-election bid.
Specter, 79, has since announced he is switching to the Democratic Party.
Such divisions are fairly common among delegations with lawmakers from the same party, such as the oft-strained exchanges between Mississippi Republicans Sen. Thad Cochran and former Sen. Trent Lott, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report.
However, raising the specter of age in such a public forum usually doesn't bode well for candidates -- especially when that candidate has had a series of public gaffes, Duffy said. South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, who served until he was 100, often faced questions about his age, as did Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the 2008 presidential election.
Both men weathered the criticism.
"McCain went down this slippery slope and it took him a long time to figure out how to navigate it," Duffy said. Bunning's "younger than Senator Strom Thurmond was, but Thurmond was so revered that he didn't have to get out and campaign, he made very few appearances. Bunning is not in that position."
Bunning should steer clear of making "any mistakes that make him look old," Duffy said.
Several other Republicans are considering a run for Bunning's seat, including Secretary of State Trey Grayson, 37 -- a Bunning protege -- and Rand Paul, 46, an ophthalmologist who lives in Bowling Green and is the son of former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.