Because of procedural rules, it usually takes 60 votes to pass even nominally controversial pieces of legislation in the US Senate. Democrats only have 50 votes, give or take Joe Lieberman. That means that Republicans can stall, block and “obstruct”–to borrow a phrase they repeatedly leveled against Democrats in the minority–pretty much anything they want to.

The man pulling the strings is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell’s kept a pretty low-profile over the years, mastering legislative minutiae and blocking any attempts to get big money out of politics. But now he’s front and center–and Democrats and progressive groups intend to keep it that way. Their goal is to paint McConnell as lead obstructionist, blocking not only debate on the Iraq war–as he did a few weeks back–but also on populist priorities such as energy independence, cheaper drugs and student debt relief.

“He long ago became one of the legendary money grubbers in modern American politics,” the Louisville Courier-Journal editorialized recently. “He spells it P-O-L-I-T-I-C-$.”

Americans United for Change launched a “McConnell Watch” campaign this week, starting with a television ad lambasting the Senator’s rosy view of the war in Iraq. For a long-time Senator and leader of his party, McConnell is surprisingly vulnerable. In the latest Survey USA poll, 49 percent of Kentuckians approve of the job he is doing, versus 43 percent who disapprove. He’s not endangered, but he can’t get too comfortable, either.

Democrats almost knocked off Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning in ’04. They’ll be gunning for McConnell in ’08.