Correction to This Article
This article about the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky incorrectly described the state as the 47th poorest in the country. The reference, based on Census Bureau data on the poverty rate for 2008, was to its being tied for 47th richest, or fourth poorest, among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to more recent census data, Kentucky has the nation's third-highest poverty rate.

In Kentucky race, a strategic divide

As he stumps across this heavily rural state, the 47th poorest in the country, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul he rarely talks about agriculture or about collecting aid from the federal government. Instead he talks about health care, capitalism and federal spending.
As he stumps across this heavily rural state, the 47th poorest in the country, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul he rarely talks about agriculture or about collecting aid from the federal government. Instead he talks about health care, capitalism and federal spending. (Alex Slitz)

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

IN PADUCAH, KY. It was as if they were running for different offices. When Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul took the stage at a recent GOP event here, he extolled the virtues of capitalism, worried about deflation and urged people to check out the national debt clock online.

Six hours later and five miles away, Democrat Jack Conway boasted that as Kentucky's attorney general he seized the computers of people who had posted images of child pornography on the Internet. He pledged to increase federal funding for nearby Murray State University and for a local nuclear power plant.

As they compete for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R), Paul and Conway are taking dramatically different approaches. Paul rails against the Obama administration in speeches that could be given by a Republican presidential hopeful. Conway laces his rhetoric with acronyms drawn from Kentucky issues and ticks off the names of small towns, sounding like a candidate for state representative.

A similar dynamic has taken shape in close races across the country. Sensing momentum on national issues such as health care, Republican candidates are raging against Washington, blasting not only their rivals but President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Democrats, meanwhile, are touting their accomplishments on local issues.

In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle's campaign ads cast Reid as the "best friend" of illegal immigrants, while one of Reid's spots depicts his efforts to avert the closing of a dairy processing plant in his state, saving 130 jobs.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) touts federal funding she won that helped keep a local hospital open. Dino Rossi, her GOP rival in a tight race, attacks Murray for voting for the 2008 bill that bailed out Wall Street firms.

With the deficit soaring and unemployment just under 10 percent, Democratic candidates "would sound out of touch" if they campaigned on the success of government efforts to save jobs and stimulate the economy, said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.

"What you can do," he said, "is say, 'Because of the work I've done, there is a hospital built that wouldn't be there otherwise.'"

David Winston, a Republican pollster, expressed doubts about such a strategy, saying Republicans tried it in 2006 and lost badly. That year, Democratic candidates across the country railed against President Bush and the Iraq war, while Republicans highlighted local issues.

A stark split

How these approaches play out this fall could be critical in places such as Kentucky, where Democrats see one of their few chances to pick up a seat in the Senate and shore up their chances of holding onto control of the chamber.

Two years ago, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) campaigned and won by touting how many earmarks he had secured. This year, while Conway is promising to bring more federal funding to the state, Paul - like nearly every other tea party candidate - has said he won't accept earmarks.

Paul and Conway represent perhaps the starkest divide in the country on these divergent approaches. Special elections in other states this year show that each approach can be effective.


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