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At Fancy Farm, McConnell steps into crosshairs

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is the biggest Republican target that some in the Tea Party have ever set their sights on -- and the 2014 candidate that Democrats are most eager to take down.

That will all burst into view this Saturday, when the five-term senator will have to share the stage in Fancy Farm, Ky., with Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin and Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Grimes, both newly minted candidates trying to unseat him. Bevin is attacking him for cutting deals with Democrats. Grimes is blaming him for the capital's gridlock and dysfunction. 

The spectacle -- the St. Jerome's Church picnic in tiny Fancy Farm has evolved into a political shouting match complete with barbecue, thousands of people (some in costumes), and the occasional arrest -- will highlight that critical dynamic: McConnell the top party leader is able to do no right for McConnell the Senate candidate. 

"It would be much easier if we weren't the leader," acknowledged a top McConnell aide who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the contest.

Bevin could spend millions of his own money in his quest to knock off the man who has been the top Senate Republican since 2007. And even some of McConnell's current Senate colleagues -- particularly those who were themselves little-known Tea Party candidates before they won races that the national party never thought they were supposed to win -- aren't necessarily backing McConnell in the May 2014 primary. 

"That's a decision for the people of Kentucky to make," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said when asked on Thursday if he planned to support McConnell over Bevin.

"I think Sen. McConnell is very capable of taking that challenge on himself," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., adding that he doesn't typically involve himself in primaries. "Pretend we never talked," he said, laughing.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, agreed to stop and talk to a reporter about a push he's leading to defund the president's health care law. "I would love to have him," he said when asked if he wants McConnell's support for that initiative.

Asked a follow up question about whether he planned to support Bevin or McConnell, Lee said: "You've gone off topic. Thank you though."

It's a situation McConnell's team tried hard to avoid. The leader has carefully courted Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky tea party darling who won after defeating McConnell's chosen candidate in a 2010 GOP primary. After that, McConnell hired Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, and the libertarian junior senator has made it clear he will support the senior Kentucky senator in the primary.

Bevin, for his part, has spent some of his own personal fortune to hire the consulting firm Cold Spark Media, the firm that ran Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey's successful conservative primary challenge and eventual win. The firm has ties to the influential Club for Growth. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are gleeful. 

"This is the exact scenario Senator McConnell wanted to avoid: credible challenges from both the right and the left simultaneously," said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "This race is going to be all about McConnell and whether Kentucky is ready for a change."

Convincing Grimes to run was a coup for party leaders. Her father was chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, and she's considered a rising talent in state government.

And while Kentucky is a red state with a decidedly conservative bent, it might not be as long a shot as it seems at first blush -- Democrats hold nearly all the statewide elected offices. State party officials emphasize that activists in the state are enthusiastic about beating McConnell.

Still, there's one major issue: Barack Obama. "The president is a huge problem for us here," said a top state Democratic official.

Grimes is also still proving herself as a candidate, and Saturday's event in Fancy Farm is a big first test. The picnic is a raucous affair; many of the activists don politically charged costumes and scream through the two or so hours of speeches. Candidates struggle to be heard above the din. Sometimes objects fly out of the crowd up on to the stage; in past years, there've even been arrests.

Bevin, too, will have to prove that he can take the heat without making a mistake.

"If the Republicans said, 'we're not going to do this anymore,' I don't think there'd be a Democrat in the state that said, 'we need to keep doing it.' But no one wants to go first," said a top state Democratic official. "But that is definitely on background."

Said a top Republican who didn't want to speak on the record criticizing the event: "It's dangerous for candidates."

McConnell's seasoned campaign team isn't taking any chances. McConnell is robocalling supporters to attend, according to one official. The state GOP is organizing buses to take supporters from Louisville, McConnell's hometown, out to Fancy Farm. 

That's angered tea party leaders -- because the buses are set to head back home from the event before Bevin, their candidate, has a chance to speak. He's second to last in the speaking order, with a slot after elected state officials.

"We have just been advised that maybe Senator Mitch McConnell has made arrangements for the GOP sponsored buses to leave for home IMMEDIATELY after the 'elected' politicians speak at Fancy Farm," read an email alert from the Northern Kentucky Tea Party sent on Thursday. "This is a typical childish underhanded power play on Mitch McConnell’s part!"

Why might McConnell already be defensive? They say they're learning the lessons of recent history.

"What we learned from the last two cycles," a top McConnell aide said, "is you don't just ignore candidates like that."