LOUISVILLE — Riding high in the polls, Rand Paul – the son of libertarian firebrand Ron Paul and the insurgent Senate candidate who has upended the Kentucky GOP primary – offered a preview of his anticipated triumphant message Tuesday night. "This has enormous implications for the power and the impact of the Tea Party movement," he declared. "If we win Tuesday, it will be the biggest victory for a Tea Party candidate in the country...It will show that the Tea Party can elect somebody."
These words were delivered not on a campaign stage surrounded by sign-waving supporters, but over lunch Saturday in a tiny Subway restaurant in the back of a gas station on the outskirts of Florence in northern Kentucky. The 47-year-old sandy-haired, Sarah Palin-endorsed candidate, wearing a pumpkin-colored buttoned-down Polo dress shirt and a blue tie, slipped into the Subway incognito and never introduced himself to anyone behind the counter. In fact, when I requested that the recorded music be turned down so I could tape my interview, the store manager came over to the table and asked suspiciously why I was conducting job interviews with unknown people in his restaurant.
Yet Rand Paul is also on the cusp of becoming a national celebrity – the dragon-slayer who defeated in a primary up-and-coming Trey Grayson, the 38-year-old Kentucky secretary of state and the anointed pick of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. All recent independent polls in Kentucky show Paul with a double-digit lead – and Republicans insiders who unaffiliated with either candidate tend to take on a funereal tone when discussing Grayson.
Before speaking an a rainy Friday afternoon to a tiny crowd in the east Kentucky coal country, Grayson eagerly talked politics in an interview. "Our internals really do show a dead heat," he said. "And the public polls, some of it is automated versus live questioner. And some of it is that getting the right turnout model is hard. This is a county election year in Kentucky and it skews a lot of the models."
Listening to the Grayson, dressed in an open-necked shirt and khakis, you could hear echoes of the precocious Harvard undergraduate (then a Democrat) who hung out at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School in the early 1990s. State senator Tom Jensen, an east Kentucky supporter of Grayson, admitted, "You don't go around here saying he's a Harvard grad." But Grayson's overall argument has merit – the Senate election takes a back seat to odd turnout surges from hard-fought county judge, county clerk and county coroner primaries all over Kentucky. Winning a Senate primary will get you on national television, but backing the right candidate in a county-wide primary may get you a safe no-heavy-lifting government job.
The six-foot-five-inch Grayson, who moves with the authority of a big man although he lacks the commanding voice of a compelling public speaker, is the Republican whom Democrats universally fear in November in the race to pick up the Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning, who has endorsed Rand Paul. The low-visibility but dramatically close Democratic Senate primary between state attorney general Jack Conway and lieutenant governor Dan Mongiardo has mostly been a TV war over character traits rather than issues. "If a vanilla Republican like Grayson somehow wins the primary, it will be very difficult for us to win in November," said a Democratic strategist, who did not want to be quoted sounding this defeatist. "Grayson will run against Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi – and that's hard to answer in Kentucky in 2010."
Video: Shakeups poised on ‘Super Senate Tuesday’? Grayson's political problem may simply be that he ran a general election campaign of conservative blandness in a primary in which the voters crave something more fiery than a candidate who talks about "results and not just rhetoric." To be sure, Rand Paulis also a graduate of the Jack Kemp School of Sleep-Inducing Economic Argumentation. At a party dinner Saturday night in affluent Scott County in the Kentucky horse country, Paul won only muted applause for a speech dotted with references to conservative economists like Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer. Grayson, who spoke directly after Paul – this was the last time the two candidates will share the same stage before Tuesday's primary -- made a few barbed but indirect references to his opponent's libertarian views: "There's somebody like me, a mainstream Kentucky Republican, who follows our party's platform. And there are others who won't."
But this may not be a year or a place when it is shrewd politics to run as the candidate of the GOP establishment. "Trey's a great guy, but he didn't get it this year," said an influential Kentucky Republican, who has not endorsed a Senate candidate. "Trey didn't realize that this is a year when candidates have to say something. Voters are angry – and they want to hear some anger back."
Rand Paul is an unusual embodiment of a national movement. A look-right eye doctor and anti-tax crusader, Paul's charisma exists mostly in the minds of his fervent supporters (150 of them were waiting at the Saturday rally in a Florence strip mall) as they cheer his Cassandra-like warnings about the fiscal abyss: "I think America's greatness could be swallowed by America's indebtedness." Paul also violates many of the protocols of center-stage politics – actually driving his own General Motors SUV (decorated with Rand Paul and dog-eared 2008 Ron Paul for president bumper-stickers) as he travels the state with a lone aide.
But Paul is not merely an unknown local activist, the equivalent of a swaybacked plow horse who suddenly finds himself leading in the home stretch at Churchill Downs. (Every political reporter who comes to Kentucky is entitled to one horse-race metaphor). As Rand Paul admits, his father's name and his fund-raising list gave him instant credibility and a platform to announce his Senate candidacy on Fox News. "Sure," said Paul, "all these things count. But it helps if the candidate can also present a message as well." What matters most to Paul is the juxtaposition of the man and the moment: "This is the right place for the message of constitutional government. And for the message of the Tea Party. And that message is: 'We're worried about the debt.'"
Grayson in our interview made the time-tested argument that if Rand Paul had been named "Randy Smith...he wouldn't have captured the imagination and had the following." In the 1962 Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts, Eddie McCormick running against an untested 30-year-old complained that his opponent's candidacy would be a joke if he were named "Edward Moore" rather than "Edward Moore Kennedy." McCormick's point was valid, but Ted Kennedy still served 46 years in the Senate. This, by the way, is probably the first and last time that Rand Paul will ever be likened to Ted Kennedy.
On the eve of the primary, there is a giddiness in the Paul camp that goes beyond normal politics. Over dinner Friday night, I asked Paul's campaign manager, David Adams, what he feared the most. "I worry about over-confidence going into the general election," he said confidently. "It'll be war." What about the primary? Do you see a way that you can lose? Without pausing, Adams replied, "No."
The odds are certainly in Rand Paul's favor. But party primaries in odd-ball years can be the great leveler for front-runners, even those blessed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement.
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