Sen. Mitch McConnell gives a thumbs up as he arrives at the annual Fancy Farm picnic with Sen. Rand Paul, left, in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

FANCY FARM, Ky. – Four years ago, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell seemed ripe to loathe one another as colleagues in the Senate. Now, against all odds, it’s difficult to find any state with senators whose local and national ambitions are so interlocked, so compatible, and whose senior aides work so hand-in-hand in pursuit of both men’s agenda.

The McConnell-Paul partnership hit its peak Saturday in western Kentucky, when the Senate Republican leader threw his full support behind the freshman senator by favorably comparing him to his own political idol before more than 400 GOP activists gathered in a high school in Graves County:

To sum up his significance not only for our state but for our country, in a very short period of time: I can say without fear of contradiction that Senator Rand Paul is, if he chooses to do this, the most credible candidate for president of the United States since Henry Clay.

The crowd there, about to head off to the state’s annual political food fight known as the Fancy Farm picnic, burst into its largest round of applause of McConnell’s 14-minute speech.

Aides have since clarified that McConnell’s remark was intended to have the word “our” in front of “most credible candidate” instead of “the”,  making clear that McConnell believes Paul is Kentucky’s best qualified presidential aspirant since the Great Compromiser’s bids in the early 19th century.

It was not an official endorsement of Paul’s 2016 candidacy, given that the campaign won’t formally launch until sometime next year, but it did lay down a marker: When Paul announces his presidential bid, don’t be surprised if Mitch McConnell is on hand endorsing his junior senator, both in the long tradition of senators supporting their home-state colleagues and also because the duo have become so close.

Paul has earned this support from McConnell. Much has been written about Paul’s key role in shepherding McConnell through a potentially difficult GOP primary in the spring, with his top political adviser – Jesse Benton – serving as McConnell’s campaign manager.

What last weekend demonstrated was how integral Paul remains to McConnell’s general election bid against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state. Paul nearly stole the show at Fancy Farm when he delivered a poetic reading to the tune of “There once was a woman from Kentucky”, making fun of Grimes' forays to Hollywood for fundraising events and of her support for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

There will be many more such appearances on behalf of McConnell mixed among Paul’s travels around the country to boost his own 2016 bid. (Paul is in the midst of a 10 stop Iowa trip at the moment.)  McConnell needs Paul for two major reasons.

  1. Paul is the most popular Republican in the state of Kentucky. A spring poll by the New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation found 53 percent of Kentucky residents approved of Paul’s performance, compared to just 32 percent who disapproved. That was much better than the 40-52 split for McConnell. Only Gov. Steve Beshear (D-Ky.) is more popular than Paul, according to the poll, with a 56 percent approval and 32 percent disapproval.
  2. At 51 and new to Washington, Paul has an appeal to voters under age 45 that the 72-year-old McConnell can't even dream of. That was readily apparent in the pre-Fancy Farm event when Paul spoke after McConnell and praised his senior colleague. He did so in a way that showed how McConnell has changed his ways, citing how McConnell used his clout to include a hemp provision in the farm bill that was passed into law this year.

Advisers say that the relationship began to change a year or so into Paul’s tenure -- he was elected in 2010 despite McConnell endorsing a Paul primary rival in that race -- as the two men talked more about their philosophy. McConnell slowly but surely convinced Paul that on many issues, the two Republicans were on the same page.

McConnell, however, made clear that his job as GOP leader made him deal with the political world as it presently exists, and that it was not possible at this stage for him to advocate some of Paul’s more radical positions (his budget proposal would eliminate four cabinet departments, including Education, while turning many entitlement programs into block grants to the states).

The result of those conversations was on full display at Fancy Farm, when McConnell’s supporters burst into an unprompted frenzy when Paul strode onto the stage in his short-sleeve button-down shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.

The evidence of how Paul has rubbed off on the Kentucky GOP establishment could be summed up in one sign held by a young McConnell supporter: “Come at me bro.”

It’s a nod to MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore”, in which one character doesn’t want to start a fight but tells another if he initiates the fight, it will get ugly. The very idea of the 70-something incumbent having rabid supporters waving signs touting MTV pop culture is completely absurd, but only in a pre-Rand Paul world.

This relationship that stands in stark contrast to Texas’s senators, Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. Cruz, like Paul,  became a tea party darling but has only served to inflame tensions with Cornyn over the past year – including his refusal to endorse the senior senator in a primary this spring.

As McConnell practically endorsed Paul’s presidential bid, Trey Grayson stood in the back of the room, quietly clapping, a symbol of how the two senators transformed their relationship. Grayson was originally McConnell’s protégé, the man who previously held Grimes’ current job. He ran as the establishment frontrunner in 2010 and, instead, Paul steamrolled Grayson and the McConnell machine. Rather than pout, McConnell’s team regrouped and dispatched several top staff to help Paul in his general election race against state Attorney General Jack Conway.

He won easily, yet tension still existed. In his maiden Senate speech, Paul lit into McConnell’s idol, Clay, and made clear his preferred role model was the cousin, Cassius Clay, a radical abolitionist who did not want to forestall the Civil War the way Senator Clay did. "As long as I sit at Henry Clay's desk, I will remember his lifelong desire to forge agreement, but I will also keep close to my heart the principled stand of his cousin, Cassius Clay, who refused to forsake the life of any human simply to find agreement," Paul said.

McConnell sat stone faced throughout the speech.

Now, more than three-and-a-half years later, the Clay comparison has come full circle -- for both men.