Wednesday, March 17, 2010

LEXINGTON, Ky. | Rand Paul has run his U.S. Senate campaign as the consummate outsider: a grass-roots candidate drawing support from regular Joes and Janes. Now that his candidacy has gained momentum, he’s beginning to pick up support from the Republican establishment.

Once dismissed as an oddball and extremist with little chance of being elected to the Senate, Mr. Paul is now considered the man to beat in Kentucky. Mr. Paul - the son of former Republican presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul - tried to win favor among state Republican bigwigs Friday by offering his support to Republican congressional candidates in a “take back the House” rally in Lexington.

“With decisions about political support, a lot of people sit on the fence until they are pretty confident of who’s going to win,” said University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss. “Paul has reached the threshold where a lot of people have decided he’s a safe bet.”

Mr. Paul and his chief rival, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, are running for their party’s nomination to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, a former major league pitcher enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Republican leaders urged Mr. Bunning, 78, not to seek a third term, fearing he had become so unpopular he couldn’t win.

Mr. Grayson was the Republican establishment’s early choice, quickly garnering some 65 Republican endorsements and benefiting from a campaign fundraiser in Washington attended by about 20 Republican U.S. senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Mr. Voss said Mr. Paul now is the clear front-runner heading into Kentucky’s May 18 primary election, citing numerous polls that show he has amassed a sizable lead with his calls to rein in government spending, stop taxpayer bailouts of private companies and balance the federal budget.

Confident in the popularity, the Bowling Green eye surgeon has reached out to Republican candidates running for other offices in Kentucky. At Friday’s rally, outside the offices of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, five Republicans vying for Mr. Chandler’s seat and about 100 Paul supporters yelled in unison: “Ben Chandler, you’re fired.”

Mr. Paul, a darling of the Kentucky “tea party” movement, told the Associated Press that he wants to take as many conservative Republicans as possible along with him to Washington.

“I think there’s a tea party tidal wave coming, and it’s going to sweep a lot of career politicians from office this year,” Mr. Paul said. “I’ve always felt like this race isn’t about me; it’s about a movement, and it’s about changing as many faces as we can across the country.”

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed Mr. Paul in February, praising him for wanting to “shake up the status quo” in Washington. Since then, several Republicans who carry clout within Kentucky have followed suit, including Dan Seum, a state lawmaker who heads the Republican caucus in the Kentucky Senate, and Jack Richardson, a former Republican chairman in the Louisville area.

To try to turn the tide, Mr. Grayson has been airing a barrage of attack ads on TV stations across the state, claiming Mr. Paul wants to cut military spending and send terrorists held at the detention facility for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, back to the their home countries.

Mr. Grayson has also run ads in the mountain region contending Mr. Paul is unfriendly to the coal industry, which employs about 17,000 Kentuckians, and on Christian radio stations saying that Mr. Paul isn’t opposed to abortion.

Mr. Paul has denied the charges and responded with his own ads, including one criticizing Mr. Grayson for admitting to “voting for draft dodger Bill Clinton.” Mr. Grayson had publicly acknowledged that he had voted for Mr. Clinton.

Both candidates have plenty of money by Kentucky standards for an ad war. Mr. Paul, capitalizing on his father’s nationwide network of campaign donors, has banked about $2 million in contributions. Mr. Grayson has collected about $1.7 million.

The eventual Republican nominee will likely face one of two well-funded Democrats, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo or Attorney General Jack Conway.

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