FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Republican Rand Paul has become the star of the Tea Party movement that's brewing up conservative challengers to establishment GOP candidates across the country, turning what was once a one-sided primary into a shootout for the Republican ballot line in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning.
The son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, faces Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was Bunning's star pupil and the choice of Senate Minority Leader McConnell, the state's senior senator.
The candidates stand in sharp contrast, with Grayson filling the role of the party insider with access to McConnell's establishment network and Paul feeding off the energy of conservatives angered by the growing cost and size of government.
"If your only concern is we need a Republican majority, I may not be the right guy," Paul told about two dozen members of the Franklin County Republican Party here last week. "I want to change the system."
Both candidates seeking to replace the caustic Hall of Fame pitcher have been put on the defensive about who is a truer Republican.
"I'm the conservative candidate, and he's the Libertarian candidate," said Grayson, who once was a registered Democrat. "I'm a Republican," countered Paul. "Libertarian means a lot of things to a lot of people. It also scares some people."
During his remarks before the county Republicans, Paul gave a tutorial on the perils of spending, bank bailouts and big government, sounding a lot like Bunning in outlining his opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program and in outlining other views. He minced few words. Asked about immigration, for example, he said an electronic fence would cost one-one-millionth as much as a solid wall, adding that there would be "zero illegal entry into this country if I were in charge of it."
Stuart Victor, chairman of the county party, said he was impressed with Paul and noted "a lot of interest in his candidacy." County party member Frank Haynes, who announced to the group, "I was conservative before Rush Limbaugh was born," agreed and said he hasn't made up his mind yet about whom to support in the primary.
But both Victor and Haynes volunteered that they and fellow county Republicans are more familiar with Grayson. In fact, Victor said, Grayson is part of the state's "strong tradition" of Republicans while Paul is "just new."
While Grayson has criticized Paul for flip-flopping on President Obama's plan to close the federal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Paul is trying to keep the focus on federal spending, which he said is the issue at the forefront of voters' minds.
While Grayson has said he opposes the TARP program, Paul said he doesn't believe him. "I think he's an opportunist" whose campaign is "going to emulate and try to adopt our message."
In opposing TARP, Grayson and Paul stand with Bunning, but against McConnell, who voted for the program. But Grayson took pains to explain that, unlike Bunning and perhaps Paul, he wasn't being critical. Grayson praised McConnell in an interview, called his TARP position "a bad vote" and pointed out that McConnell won't be on the ballot next year.
Paul compares his primary campaign against Grayson to the battle in Florida between Gov. Charlie Crist, the frontrunner, and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, the favorite of conservatives who want to move the party further to the right.
Grayson has about $1.2 million in the bank, compared with $912,000 for Paul at the close of the third quarter.
Paul is collecting small donations from across the country and has been to more than 100 campaign events so far. "What I've done so far in Kentucky is I've made the movement that I think my father began much bigger," he said, referring to the frenzy his father created in last year's GOP presidential primary. He noted that Tea Party rallies are much larger than any Republican events he has attended.
But one unknown, in Kentucky and in other states where the Tea Party activists are trying to mount serious challenges, is whether the grassroots coalitions can hold together for the long haul.
The McConnell network is largely intact and most of the top aides who helped him in a tougher-than-expected re-election bid last year are now working for Grayson. McConnell and other speakers eagerly plugged Grayson's candidacy at a recent gathering in Shelbyville.
While a source said Paul requested a get-to-know-you meeting with McConnell last month, McConnell's strategists wrote it off as an attempt to poke the political establishment.
This article appears in the December 5, 2009 edition of NJ Daily.