A battle for the soul of the Republican Party is shaping up in Kentucky. As soon as Sen. Jim Bunning announced his retirement, the GOP establishment -- led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- rallied behind the candidacy of Trey Grayson, Kentucky's tall, affable secretary of state.
But Grayson and McConnell have been blindsided by Rand Paul, son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is riding an anti-establishment wave in the Bluegrass State -- spurred on by the Tea Party.
It's Not Anger -- It's Concern
Rand Paul sits in the waiting room of his Bowling Green, Ky., medical practice. It's been a busy day, and Paul, an ophthalmologist, is still wearing his blue scrubs after performing surgery earlier.
"I find that it's a day of vacation when I only have to do my real job as a physician and don't have to campaign," he says. "I'm like, 'Oh good, I don't have to go anywhere.' "
Paul has been crisscrossing Kentucky, speaking to Tea Party rallies and Lincoln Day dinners. It's the Tea Partiers, Paul says, who have given his campaign its energy.
"I give a lot of credit to the Tea Party momentum. And I've been part of the tax reform movement in Kentucky for 15 years," he says. "And I always say, 'I was part of the Tea Party before the Tea Party existed.' "
Paul's ideas come largely from the Ronald Reagan/Contract with America handbook. He wants to eliminate the federal departments of Education, Energy and Commerce. He says he'll filibuster to get a constitutional balanced-budget amendment debated, and he wants term limits. But those proposals were never implemented even when Republicans controlled Washington. Paul's appeal seems based on something else -- though not anger, he says.
"I would say it's concern," he says. "In all of my speeches, that's what I say motivates me. And it's what I see and feel palpably at these Tea Parties ... concern and worry over the loss of direction of our country, the loss of constitutional freedoms, the fact our deficit could grow so large that it could make things unstable."
Potential instability is something Paul talks about often. In one of his favorite riffs, he harkens back to pre-World War II Germany.
"In 1923, Germany destroyed its currency. The pictures in our history books -- most people have seen them: money in wheelbarrows, people burning money for fuel. And out of that came chaos and came Hitler," he says.
Quickly, Paul adds he's not comparing anyone to Hitler, nor is he predicting some sort of imminent dictatorship.
A Question Of What's Mainstream
"His ideas are strange," says Grayson, who in any other year would likely be sailing to his party's nomination. "I disagree with his ideas. I think they are strange."
Along with McConnell's backing, Grayson also has the endorsement of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Grayson has been trying to paint Paul as outside the mainstream while positioning himself as the candidate best suited to bring change to Washington.
"I'm confident that we're going to convince enough voters that if you're mad, the best way to handle this -- if you're upset, if you're concerned, if you're worried -- is to send somebody who can make Washington work a little bit better, and I've got a track record to prove it," he says.
Grayson supporter Jonathan Spaulding says he's worried that a victory by Paul in the GOP primary next month could mean Republicans lose the seat to a Democrat in November.
"I think some of the Ron Paul and son Rand Paul ideas are just not going to happen, and when people come in and believe that we're going to abolish all these things and all those things are going to happen and vote for that -- they're going to be certainly disappointed," Spaulding says.
But right now, Rand Paul's Tea Party supporters believe they're on a roll. Paul appeared at a Tea Party event in Louisville last week, where the speakers included the Rev. Jerry Stephenson, an African-American minister.
"Do I look like a black militant racist?" Stephenson asked.
The crowd shouted, "No."
"Then let me tell you something: You don't look like white amen racist hillbillies," Stephenson said. "You look like Americans, and we're all standing for the same thing."
Paul also addressed the rally, whose several hundred attendees were mostly white and middle age. Vicki Kesner, a school bus driver, was holding a Rand Paul yard sign. She says she likes that Paul is not a career politician.
"Trey Grayson is a party man," Kesner says. "He was hand selected by the party, and I've had it up to here with the party problems. They're not listening to us as a people. They're not hearing to what we're saying, and I like the way that Rand Paul does listen to us and does seem to respond to it."
Right now, Paul's chances of getting to the Senate look pretty good. He's been endorsed by Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin and by Bunning. And while polls show either Paul or Grayson would be favored over the two Democrats running, Paul is clearly in the driver's seat, holding a double-digit lead for the May 18 Republican primary.