LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Mitch McConnell revealed a more personal side Friday that at least momentarily softened his reputation as a hardnosed legislator and campaigner, recounting his childhood bout with polio and his mother's devotion in caring for him as the five-term Republican tried to appeal to women voters in Kentucky.
The Senate minority leader talked about the women who influenced his life at the launch of a campaign push aimed at getting the woman's vote. McConnell is preparing for a potential race next year against Democratic Senate front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is Kentucky's secretary of state.
But first, McConnell faces a challenge in the GOP primary from Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman.
McConnell, diagnosed with polio at age 2, said at Friday's event that his mother gave him physical therapy treatments three times daily. He said his earliest memory was his last trip to a treatment center in Georgia, when his mother was told he would have a normal childhood. After receiving the news, they went out and bought shoes for him, he said.
"I've always felt that the discipline that my mother demonstrated ... taught me a very early lesson that if you work hard, you're likely to be able to overcome the obstacles," said McConnell, who rarely talks publicly about his battle with the disease, though he touched upon the subject in a TV ad in his last re-election campaign.
McConnell also teared up when a campaign aide talked about her young son's fight against cancer and the senator's support.
At McConnell's side at the event was his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who defended her husband's record on women's issues.
McConnell's detractors said the event was a ploy to try to distract women from his voting record.
"Sen. McConnell's photo op today comes as no surprise given his disastrous record on issues impacting women and their families," said Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton. "Time and again, Mitch McConnell has cowardly taken the low road and refused to stand strong for the women of the commonwealth."
Glimpses of the bare-knuckled politician surfaced during the campaign event in McConnell's hometown of Louisville that drew women from across the state.
In looking ahead to his possible race against Grimes, he said: "What you're going to see by my opponent, obviously, is the Barack Obama playbook — to try to divide people with gender-based attacks," McConnell said.
Grimes' campaign called McConnell's event a "desperate attempt to run from his failed record." Her campaign said she would strive to close the gender wage gap. As secretary of state, she helped lead the effort for an address confidentiality program for domestic violence victims to ensure their safety isn't compromised when they vote.
McConnell said the general-election campaign would boil down to who Bluegrass state voters want leading the Senate — a Kentuckian, or a Democrat who supports Obama's agenda. McConnell, an unwavering Obama critic, is trying to tie Grimes to the Democratic president, who has never been popular in Kentucky.
Chao, who was labor secretary in George W. Bush's cabinet, is expected to play a key role in what's shaping up as a tough re-election campaign for her husband.
"I have spent my life breaking through glass ceilings, and I've done it with Mitch by my side supporting me," she said.
Chao said her husband has pushed to increase funding for breast cancer research and mobile health clinics, to protect women soldiers from sexual assault and to allow private-sector employers to give employees the choice of paid time off in lieu of cash wages for overtime worked.
Grimes' campaign noted that McConnell voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Violence Against Women Act. The Ledbetter Act prevents restrictions on workers filing lawsuits over pay inequity. The Violence Against Women law takes steps to prevent violence and better prosecute those who assault their domestic partners.
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said the senator supported a stronger version of the Violence Against Women act during the reauthorization debate, a claim that McConnell's opponents ridicule. Benton said the senator sees the Ledbetter Act "as a giveaway to trial lawyers."
Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based group Emily's List, said McConnell's has compiled a "deplorable, anti-woman record." She said the senator's appearances with woman and his campaign's comments about his hiring of women staffers are meant to distract voters.
"McConnell's shameful votes against equal pay legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, and countless other pieces of legislation geared toward protecting the health and security of women, have already been cast — and Kentucky women are taking note," she said in a statement.