BOWLING GREEN, Ky. -- "People have been asking me: Do you miss being in the debates?" asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
His audience, donors and legislators at the Southern Kentucky Lincoln Reagan Dinner, laughed a little ruefully. Had the presidential primaries gone another way, Paul would be seeking fresh momentum from a win in Saturday's caucuses. His campaign paid $250,000 to stage them; it was the only way to allow the senator to pursue re-election while running for president.
Now, as a candidate for re-election, Paul is remaining studiously neutral. In a short conversation with reporters tonight, he declined to say who he would vote for. He declined to join the fitful #NeverTrump movement, and declined to advise Kentuckians, a la Mitt Romney, which candidate could beat Trump tomorrow.
"Let's just leave it at 'I'll support the nominee,'" said Paul. "We'll see who the nominee is."
At stake in Kentucky are 46 delegates -- 12 more than Iowa, which was saturated with candidates and TV ads. By contrast, of the four men still running for president, only Donald Trump has stumped in Kentucky, flying in for a Louisville rally where a white supremacist made headlines for belligerently helping to eject a black protester. (Ben Carson, who had campaigned in Lexington, dropped out of the race on Friday afternoon.)
The lack of action has convinced local activists that Kentucky will give yet another win to Trump, who leads in polls for caucuses that have no precedent. To vote tomorrow, a Kentuckian must have registered as a Republican before Dec. 31, 2015. He can drop by his county caucus site from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. He can, if he chooses, still cast a spoiler vote for Paul.
"It wasn't his time," sighed Gaye Pearl, 64, who had forked over $50 to attend the fundraising dinner.
"I have to keep changing bumper stickers," said her husband Mike, 59. "I was all in for Rand. Then I switched to Ben Carson, and well, that stopped being an option today."
Paul and local Republicans have promoted the caucuses to the best of their abilities, telling state Republicans that for the first time, their state is relevant in the presidential race. But optimistically, they hope even 10 percent of voters show up.
"Just today I got three calls asking me where the caucus is, when it is," said Bob Kleier, the Republican chairman in Edmonson County. "How do people not know yet?"
The relatively low stakes of competing have not helped with this. Republicans, who did not want the caucuses to look like a gift-wrapped package for Paul, created a low viability threshold. Any Republican who scores more than 5 percent of the vote is eligible for delegates. That was one reason why Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) never campaigned in Kentucky, save for Cruz's awkward 2015 appearance at a rally for defiant Rowan County clerk Kim Davis.
It was a reason why Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who had endorsed Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), arrived at Friday's dinner as a surrogate and gave a lengthy speech about Kasich's virtues and Trump's demerits, as pro-Kasich literature sat in an unruffled pile outside.
"I feel his 'I'm always right' style demeans our dialogue," said Johnson of Trump. "Don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean we shouldn't build a border wall. We should."
And it was a reason why Scott Hofstra, the Kentucky chairman for Cruz's campaign, alternated between annoyance with the caucus system and optimism for what the late-mobilizing "Cruz Crew" could pull off. A Tea Party veteran, Hofstra was tasked with a month-long campaign to pull out motivated voters.
"We heard that they were trying to lean on the judge executives and the legislators to endorse Rubio, and it didn't work," said Hofstra. "If the turnout is 10 percent, that bodes well for us. We see a close race between Cruz and Trump here, and we have not seen any Trump ground game."
The optimism for Trump is not as related to his organizing -- as in other states, he has a ground team that does not talk much to reporters -- as it is to demographics. In Tuesday's primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, Trump cleaned up in rural counties along the Kentucky border.
Paul, who had run as one of Trump's most passionate critics, was trying to focus on issues those voters might be convinced to care about. Next week, he was introducing a resolution of disapproval in the Senate designed to stop the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan.
"I just got back from eastern Kentucky, and I saw people out of work," said Paul. "I saw poverty. I saw 40 years of poverty. And I see no reason why we should take taxpayer money from the hardworking people of Kentucky and give it to Pakistan."
Liberated from the presidential race, Paul needed to be nudged by reporters before talking about Trump et al. He was cool to the idea of strategic voting against Trump.
"I'm not so sure Romney's tactic is a great one," he said, "because if you think about it, if you're considering voting for Donald Trump, and someone from 'the establishment' tells you it's a bad idea, maybe you react in the opposite way," said Paul. "So I don't know that Romney is going to have a great deal of influence on that. I spent about a year pointing out the differences between one candidate and another, and I think I'm done doing that."
And when pressed on the question of a long anti-Trump campaign leading to a "brokered convention," Paul basically threw up his hands.
"I have one delegate," he said, "so I will probably be very judicious about where my delegate goes."