LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Republican Sen. Jim Bunning held off a strong challenge by Democrat Daniel Mongiardo on Tuesday to win a second term, scoring a razor-thin victory following a campaign in which the candidates exchanged increasingly sharp personal attacks.

With all but four precincts reporting, Bunning beat Mongiardo by only about 18,000 votes out of more than 1.7 million cast.

Bunning, 73, a Hall of Fame major-league pitcher, once was viewed as a lock to win re-election, but saw his edge slip away in the campaign’s closing days.

He once compared Mongiardo’s appearance to one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, then made an unsubstantiated claim that Mongiardo’s staffers beat his wife “black and blue” at a political picnic.

The personal attacks by both candidates reached a flashpoint in the final week when two Bunning surrogates made comments that seemed to suggest that Mongiardo is gay. Mongiardo, who is single, said he is not.

Bunning has accused Mongiardo, 44, of spreading false rumors that he is mentally unfit to continue his job – allegations that Mongiardo denied.

In his only debate with Mongiardo, Bunning participated from the Republican National Committee offices in Washington, and his campaign later acknowledged he used a TelePrompTer for some remarks.

On the issues, Mongiardo, a state senator and surgeon, branded Bunning as ineffective and offered several populist-tinged promises to help families strapped by high costs for health care, prescription drugs and college tuition.

Bunning stressed his conservative credentials and alliance with President Bush, counting on a boost from the president’s name at the top of the ballot.

Bunning acknowledged Monday that he had not run a perfect campaign.

“The only time I’ve ever been perfect was for about two hours in 1964,” he said in reference to a perfect game he pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies.

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