LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning bade the Kentucky Republican Party farewell Saturday, telling supporters that "it's been great" as he watches two contenders vie for the GOP nomination for his seat.
At the GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner, Bunning cracked jokes and told a crowd that included notable Republicans he was looking forward to time with his family. The Courier-Journal reported that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader and once Bunning's closest ally, was absent from the dinner.
"This has been, the 30 years I've served the public, the best years of my life," said Bunning, who spent 17 years as a Major League Baseball pitcher before turning to politics. "But with 35 grand kids and five great-grand kids ... (my wife) Mary and I are really looking forward to coming home."
Bunning bowed out of an expected re-election bid in July 2009, citing fundraising difficulties. Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul, the two Republicans who hope to nab the GOP nomination on May 18, attended the dinner but did not speak.
Bunning is backing Paul, the son of former presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, while McConnell is supporting Grayson.
Larry Cox, who runs McConnell's Kentucky office, attended and said that McConnell had to be in Washington D.C.
Bunning's term runs through the end of the year, but the annual statewide Lincoln Day Dinner marks the last real chance for him to bid farewell to a large group of Kentucky Republicans.
Bunning began his political career as a member of the Fort Thomas City Commission, then moved on to the Kentucky State Senate before heading to Washington for 12 years in the U.S. House and 12 more in the U.S. Senate.
The ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in Lexington was adorned with memorabilia from Bunning's Hall of Fame baseball career, and, to a lesser degree, his political career.
Mike Duncan, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, called Bunning "a hall of famer in baseball, a hall of famer in politics, but more importantly, a hall of famer in life."
Video statements from former President George H.W. Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, of Oklahoma, were shown on a large screen.
In his 20-minute address, Bunning showed glimpses of humor, pride and his conservative principles.
He joked that he's been dealing with the news media since becoming a professional baseball player which he said should entitle him to some sort of award.
"Where's my plaque?" he asked. "Sixty years in dealing with the electronic and print media and I don't have a plaque for it?"
Bunning, whose face reddened at times during his speech, also took a veiled shot at McConnell for not standing by him earlier this year when Bunning blocked passage of a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits to people whose benefits had run out.
He noted that only four members of the Senate stood with him.
"I thought, where is our leadership, where in the world are they?"
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)