By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 8:11 PM
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.
In January, in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, Scott Brown (R) rode to victory to replace the late senator Edward M. Kennedy by blasting Washington.
But in May, in a special election to replace the late representative John P. Murtha, Mark Critz (D) won the seat representing southwestern Pennsylvania by touting his knowledge of the district as a longtime congressional staffer, defeating a GOP opponent who constantly invoked Pelosi and Obama.A federal focus
When Paul won the primary in May over a candidate backed by much of the state's Republican establishment, his victory speech effectively glossed over Kentucky, as he praised the tea party and its influence on politics.
As he stumps across this heavily rural state, the 47th poorest in the country, he rarely talks about agriculture or about collecting aid from the federal government.
Instead, as the longtime eye doctor chatted with voters at a Republican Party breakfast here recently, he mentioned an article he had read in the Wall Street Journal and complained about remarks the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid made praising the British health-care system.
"They say a billion seconds ago, my parents were children, a billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive, a billion hours ago was the Stone Age, but a billion dollars ago, at the rate the federal government is spending, was six minutes ago," Paul declared on stage, to hushed tones from the crowd.
Last month, in an interview with the Associated Press, he played down the importance of drug abuse in the state, saying it was "not a pressing issue" compared with national concerns such as federal spending. He later said drug abuse programs should be funded at the state level, not by the federal government, but emphasized he believes it is a major issue.Understanding the state
Enter Conway. In the eastern part of this state, abuse of prescription drugs, marijuana and methamphetamines is a rampant problem. The region's congressman, Rep. Harold Rogers (R), has long sought and won federal funding for drug rehabilitation and law enforcement programs to combat the abuse.
To highlight Paul's view, Conway's campaign has organized roundtables and speeches in which the Democrat specifically talks about the state's drug problem and how it can be fought. "He doesn't understand Kentucky," Conway says of Paul on the stump.
Conway makes few nods to the issues that have dominated the political landscape during the past two years. After a speech here where he launched a new campaign office, a woman came up to Conway and asked him "You were for health care, right?" The candidate had not mentioned the issue in his speech and rarely does, but quickly assured her he had.
In an interview, Conway dismissed the notion that he avoids the national issues. He emphasized that he shares Paul's opposition to some of the proposals of congressional Democrats.
"I'm happy to talk about the issues he's talking about," Conway said. "If he wants to talk about cap and trade, I'm against it, I've been against it."
Conway almost never invokes Paul's most widely publicized statement: an assertion this spring that he was not sure he would have supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - a position he quickly changed amid fierce criticism. Conway's advisers say voters are more interested in local and economic issues than in Paul's latest controversial statement.
Operatives in both parties say Paul's comments on drugs and civil rights have aided Conway, who is trailing by just a few points in polls in a state where Obama is highly unpopular.
Paul argues that a Senate election is a national election - and that Conway can't run on national issues because the Democratic Party's positions are so unpopular in Kentucky.
"If you ask most people in Kentucky and in this country what concerns them," he said, "I think you will hear jobs, the economy, the debt. Those are the top three issues."