Just days before the party primaries in Kentucky, outsider Senate candidate Rand Paul holds a double-digit lead over Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the "establishment" Republican anointed by the GOP's Washington leadership - including Senate minority leader and fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell.
The race is the latest test of the strength of the anti-Washington sentiment fueling insurgent campaigns like Mr. Paul's across the country - and would be a bitter rebuke for Mr. McConnell from the state party he helped build.
Mr. McConnell and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, strongly backed Mr. Grayson in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. But Mr. Paul, a Bowling Green ophthalmologist, has emerged from the state's powerful "tea party" movement as the candidate to beat.
Mr. Paul, the son of Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul, downplays suggestions that his race with Mr. Grayson has implications for Mr. McConnell or other Washington leaders.
"This race isn't about Mitch McConnell," he said, "It's about Rand Paul and Trey Grayson and the issues we're talking about in this campaign. But I will say this: If we do win on Tuesday, this is a big victory for the tea party movement and what we stand for."
He also downplayed reports that, if he wins the Senate seat, he wouldn't support the return of his Kentucky colleague to lead the Senate Republican caucus.
"There's been way too much made of that comment," he told The Washington Times on Wednesday in a phone interview from Bowling Green. "I said I wouldn't necessarily vote for him, but I also said I wouldn't necessarily vote against him. It would depend on the circumstances, and no one knows what those will be. But the fact is, he endorsed [Mr. Grayson], and Grayson represents that part of the Republican Party that my supporters want to see change."
Many in Washington see Mr. Paul as a proxy for "anti-establishment" figures within the party such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina - both of whom have endorsed the tea party candidate - while Mr. Grayson is seen as an extension of Washington's GOP leadership,
And despite endorsements from Mr. McConnell and funding from Mr. Cornyn's committee, Mr. Grayson is limping into the homestretch of the primary campaign looking for a miracle to turn around the relentlessly negative polling news.
In the latest surveys from Magellan Strategies, Survey USA and Kentucky Poll, Mr. Paul holds leads of from 12 to 15 percentage points over Mr. Grayson. More bad news came Thursday from a new Bluegrass Poll that showed Mr. Paul pulling away from Mr. Grayson with a 49 percent to 33 percent edge.
Mr. Paul is also polling very strongly in potential matchups against the leading Democratic candidates, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway, who are locked in their own tight contest for Tuesday's primary.
Either Democrat would have a tough fight against Mr. Paul, said Maryland-based pollster Del Ali, who has studied the race for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Mr. Paul's "anti-tax, anti-spending" message plays well with Kentucky voters, he said.
"People are just disgusted with Washington," he said, "and Paul has really keyed in on that."
Some Democrats have openly welcomed Mr. Paul's rise, saying he would be far more beatable than the more centrist Mr. Grayson in the general election in November.
But Mr. McConnell expects the GOP to hold the seat whether Mr. Paul or Mr. Grayson prevails. "I think Kentucky's in a pretty Republican mood this year," he told ABC News this week.
Joe Gershtenson, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and longtime commentator on state politics, said Mr. Grayson's tenure as the secretary of state could help on Tuesday - but it may be too little, too late.
"He knows all the county judges; he knows the local party officials," Mr. Gershtenson said. "But this lead that Paul has held has been remarkably consistent over the last two months."
Mr. Grayson didn't return requests for an interview, but on Monday night he criticized the anti-Washington, anti-earmarks campaign of his opponent as shortsighted for the state.
Mr. Gershtenson said Mr. Paul's rise to prominence in Kentucky politics - this is his first bid for public office - was helped by the Bowling Green eye surgeon's famous father, a maverick GOP congressman who sought the presidency in 2008.
"It would not have been possible if there had not been a Ron Paul," he said.
The younger Mr. Paul acknowledged a debt to his father.
"Obviously, we've benefited from the connection," he said. "I grew up knocking on doors for him, campaigning for him. We're both big believers in limited government."
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