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Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, talks on USA TODAY's Capital Download about Sen. Mitch McConnell's tough race, Sen. Rand Paul's presidential ambitions and why the Kentucky health care website has worked — unlike the federal one. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why has the Kentucky health care website worked when the federal one famously did not?

A: We've got some of the worst health statistics in the country. ... In order to really make a change, you had to have some kind of transformational tool, and the Affordable Care Act came along and gave me that tool. ... We grabbed it. We ran with it. We've got 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians. We have so far since Oct. 1 signed up over 244,000 people. I think we will probably hit about 300,000 at March 31. People are just coming out of the woodwork on this.

What we did is we very quietly took all of the planning money that the federal government offered. We sat our vendors down with our Medicaid people and the folks that run the public health system in Kentucky. We worked through what we needed to do. We made it simple. We didn't put a lot of bells and whistles on our website. We tested and then we tested and then we tested again to make sure that it was going to work and then of course kept our fingers crossed when Oct. 1 came. And it worked. It worked like a charm.

Out of 640,000 people, about 308,000 will qualify for expanded Medicaid. The other 332,000, about 85-90% of them are going to qualify for a premium subsidy of some kind. In a generation, it's going to make a huge difference in the commonwealth.

Q: That sounds very sensible — you didn't put a lot of bells and whistles on the website, you tested and tested. Why didn't the federal government do that?

A: In their defense, they had a much bigger audience than we did. ... I don't think they expected so many states to refuse to do their own exchanges.

But having said that, I mean, they messed up. They know it. We know it. But the good thing about it is ... it is working now.

This is a long process. This is not one of these things where in six months you declare success or failure. It is going to be a process.

Q: Perry Bacon of the Grio wrote that in some counties in Kentucky, more people have signed up for Obamacare than voted for Barack Obama. But it hasn't boosted the president's ratings.

A: Look, let me tell you how I sold this to Kentuckians. I told them, I said, "Look, you don't have to like the president. You don't have to like me. Because this is not about the president or about me. It's about you. It's about your family. It's about your kids. It doesn't cost you a dime to go on that website or to call that toll-free number and find out what you might be entitled to here. And I'll guarantee you if you do that you're going to like what you find." And that's what Kentuckians did.

You're right, the president isn't very popular in Kentucky. I think the last poll out had his approval rating at 34%. But interestingly enough, he was ahead of Mitch McConnell, our senior senator, who was at 32%. So that's going to be interesting this fall.

Q: Why isn't President Obama more popular in Kentucky?

A: The coal issue is a tough issue for the president in Kentucky in that we've got a lot of people employed in the coal industry and, obviously, with the climate change push and all of that, it has had some effect on that part of the economy.

Q: You call your program kynect. Would it have been as successful if it had Obama's name attached to it?

A: Well, there was a reason we called it kynect.

The summer before Oct. 1, when we were leading up to the opening of our exchange, we had a booth at our state fair. ... One fellow came up, and we went through it with him, and he said, "This is great, this is a lot better than that Obamacare." The lady that was working with him told me later, she said, "I paused, and I thought, should I tell them? No." And she didn't. And the guy went away happy.

This isn't politics, this is human beings. These folks are not some group of aliens from a distant planet. They're our friends and neighbors. They're folks that we go to church with, we shop in the grocery with, we sit in the bleachers on Friday nights and watch our kids play football or baseball or basketball.

These are hardworking folks who get up every day and go to work just hoping and praying that they don't get sick, because they know they're one bad diagnosis away from bankruptcy. And nobody deserves to live that way.

Q: Some Democrats running in red states are concerned this will be a terrible issue for them in November. Do you think it will?

A: No, I don't, and here's why: About 80% of the population in the United States is not going to be affected by the Affordable Care Act, one way or the other, and by next November, they're going to know that. There's been so much misinformation put out by the critics; it's scared people. So for 80% of the population, it's not going to be an issue one way or the other.

The other 20%, about half of them will be signed up by that time and will like what they find.

So I really think that by next November, it will either be basically a neutral issue that people aren't going to decide who they're going to vote for on the basis of, or really a positive issue. ... You watch it: In the end, it's going to be a plus instead of a minus.

Q: A lot of Democrats think it will be an asset in the end but that there's not enough time until November to prove that to people who are so skeptical.

A: Let's face it: We've got the issue. So be aggressive. Be on the offensive instead of the defensive, and get out and tell the story. You know what you need to do is not talk about the numbers and be at 30,000 feet. You need to talk about these families that come up to me every day with tears in their eyes saying, "Thank you. Thank you for this coverage. It's the first time in my life I've been able to take my kids to the doctor and get immunizations and get them checked out."

Q: You've been a leader in restoring voting rights to felons. Why?

A: We've got a segment of the population that has committed crimes, that have served their time, and we need to integrate them back into society if we can and make them productive citizens. To me, part of that effort is to recognize again they've got the rights of other citizens. They should be able to vote, and they should be able to get a job.

That's the human part of it. I'll tell you there's an economic part of it, because it costs in Kentucky $21,000, $22,000 a year to incarcerate a person. And of course that's a big hunk out of your budget that I could be spending on educating our children and providing health care and providing public safety for our people. And so the more we can reintegrate those folks and make them productive citizens, the less they're going to go commit another crime and go back in.

Q: Sen. Rand Paul, a politician with whom you're often at odds, has endorsed this idea.

A: He's an interesting guy. He every once in a while comes out from way over on the right side of the world and gets into the middle on something, and that may have something to do with his ambitions.

Q: His presidential ambitions?

A: Sure. I think he's running around the country hoping that maybe lightning will strike. And I guess as a Democrat I should hope that lightning strikes cause I don't think someone with his views can get elected. ... He's too far on the fringe on so many things.

Americans, I think for the most part, want someone who is a fairly moderate person, that's a pragmatic person, that knows how to sit down with people, work with people and get something done. They may be a little right of center, they may be a little left of center, but in the end, I think that's what most Americans are looking for is somebody who just knows how to work with people and accomplish some things.

Q: Bill Clinton will be campaigning in Kentucky Tuesday for Democratic Senate contender Alison Lundergan Grimes, his first campaign appearance of 2014. Rand Paul has attacked him, calling him a sexual predator. Has that hurt Clinton's standing in Kentucky?

A: Not at all. Bill Clinton was a very successful president and carried Kentucky both times that he ran. He is greatly admired there, as is his wife, Hillary, both when she was first lady and as a senator and then as secretary of State. If she ends up running for president, I think she'll have the possibility of carrying Kentucky in 2016.

Having President Clinton come in there is a big plus for Alison Grimes. And I'm glad he's doing it because we've got a real shot at winning that race in Kentucky. And the reason that we do more than anything else is, people are just sick and tired of all this obstructionism here in Washington, of the fact that the government can't function here. And Sen. McConnell has been right in the middle of that cause of that not functioning for the last few years.

That's not what people of Kentucky are looking for. And people of Kentucky are a pragmatic bunch. They're not rabid Democrats or Republicans a lot of times. They're just looking for somebody who's willing to say, "I'll work with people on both sides of the aisle to accomplish something." And I think they're looking for a fresh face.

Q: Do you have any interest in running for vice president in 2016?

A: No. I've seen some of those stories. And I don't think I'll have to worry about making that decision. I mean, there are hundreds of people out here who are qualified for that.

Q: That's not exactly a Shermanesque denial.

A: Well, I don't think anybody would say that if a presidential candidate called you up and said, "Steve, I've got to have you here with me." I mean, my wife and I would have to sit down and do some hard thinking about that. But that's not going to happen.

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