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In Kentucky's Senate race, ties to Mitch McConnell could be helpful or harmful

Rand Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, defeated opponent Trey Grayson in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary on May 18.

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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

MONTICELLO, KY. -- When Senate candidate Rand Paul told a lunchtime crowd at Shearer's Buffet that "we have to do things differently" in Washington and "bring 'em home and send some different Republicans," it wasn't hard to make the jump from this rural area near the Tennessee border to the top Republican in the state, if not the country: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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Paul, a "tea party" activist and the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a former presidential candidate, is not the first person this year to blame leaders in Washington for the nation's ills. What's remarkable about this primary campaign is that McConnell isn't even on the ballot. Paul is running against Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

McConnell, 68, is widely credited with building the Kentucky Republican Party -- the GOP headquarters in Frankfort is even named for him. Just a few months ago, it seemed inconceivable that he couldn't push Grayson, his handpicked candidate, to victory Tuesday. Now, not only is Grayson in trouble -- he trails in the polls by double digits -- but his association with McConnell isn't helping.

"They go, and they stay too long, they lose their way, and as they do they become corrupted by the system," Paul, 47, an eye surgeon making his first run for office, told a group of about 30 supporters over breakfast at Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken in the tiny town of Albany. "The longer you're there, the more you succumb to the power, the more you think you are somehow different or more important than the rest."

McConnell was unavailable for an interview, and his spokesman declined to comment for this article. But Grayson rejected the idea that the race has become a referendum on McConnell or Grayson's connection to him. "He's actually got more D.C. ties than me," Grayson said of Paul.

He's also sure that McConnell is an asset, despite his five terms in office. They're both so sure, in fact, that the senator, after months of behind-the-scenes support, jumped in last week with a public endorsement.

(Six Republican candidates are on the ballot, but polls show the race is between Paul and Grayson. Similarly, five Democrats are seeking their party's nomination the same day, but surveys find that the contest is primarily between Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.)

Grayson has numerous connections to McConnell. McConnell urged the younger Republican, a lawyer from the Cincinnati suburbs, to run even before outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning (R) decided last year to retire. (Bunning is supporting Paul.) They share a pollster and a media consultant, and Grayson's father, a bank president, is a longtime McConnell supporter. The view among some who back Paul is that Grayson would be little more than a yes man for McConnell.

"We're sick of McConnell," said Winna Ramsey, 50, a radiology technician from Monticello who came to hear Paul speak at Shearer's. "Rand Paul is not a career politician. He's got the people's interests in mind, not the special interests. He's a breath of fresh air from what I can see."

Grayson, 38, bristles at such characterizations and is exasperated that his record of fiscal and social conservatism is going unnoticed. Grayson opposed the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program legislation in 2008 that bailed out U.S. financial institutions; as secretary of state he slashed spending in his office; he served on the board of a pregnancy crisis center that counsels against abortion. He also notes that much of Paul's momentum is the result of out-of-state donations from his father's supporters.

Still, Grayson struggles to connect with potential backers. At the headquarters of a hardwood flooring company in London, Ky., one of the owners lamented the state of the economy, and Grayson responded: "Oh, it's terrible." Local circuit court clerk Roger L. Schott, who was escorting Grayson, tried to prod the candidate. "What are we going to do to change that, Trey?" Afterward, the businessman, Jim Begley, said Paul seemed to have more answers.

Paul's campaign stops are feisty affairs at which supporters hoot and cheer as he weaves his personal biography and a list of grievances with Washington into a populist call to arms. The founder of the antitax organization Kentucky Taxpayers United, Paul rails against what he describes as Washington's unsustainable spending, crippling debt, career politicians with no term limits, a "socialist" health-care law and a failure to close the nation's borders to illegal immigrants.

Paul has become a national hero of the tea party movement by opposing new taxes and deficit spending and supporting such ideas as the abolition of the Department of Education and amending the Constitution so that children born in the United States to illegal immigrants would no longer become citizens automatically. A victory for him on Tuesday would further energize a movement already pumped up by the defeat of Sen. Robert F. Bennett in Utah's Republican primary last weekend.

"Greece is defaulting right now on their debt," he told the breakfast group. "One of the next things you'll see is chaos on the streets. You'll see violence. . . . And it can happen even in America if we're not careful."

But Paul's libertarian streak could lead to breaks with conservatives on some issues. He opposed the war in Iraq. He has spoken in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. A pro-Grayson advocacy group, trying to portray Paul as out of step with mainstream Republicans, is running a television ad featuring a chiming cuckoo clock.

McConnell's advisers say the senator remains popular among Republican voters, and Paul typically doesn't mention him by name. But his crowds are all too glad to make the connection. And the candidate got as close as ever to a direct critique of McConnell during a debate on Monday, when he and Grayson were asked whether they would vote for McConnell to keep his post as Republican leader. While Grayson answered that he would vote "proudly" for McConnell, Paul said, "I'd have to know who the opponent is and make a decision at that time."


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