Frankfort, KY – Last July, after struggling to raise money, U.S. Senator Jim Bunning ended speculation over his bid for a third term by withdrawing from the campaign. His departure immediately thrust Secretary of State Trey Grayson into the spotlight, as the candidate to beat in the Republican primary. But a surprising surge by Bowling Green physician Rand Paul steered the political neophyte to the top of the polls, where he remains. Paul who wants to shrink government has tapped into the growing tea party movement.
"Big things are happening," said Paul. "I mean, there's a movement going on across the country and I'm part of it."
Forty-seven year old Paul is the son of longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul, who ran a failed 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. By capitalizing on his father's political base, the younger Paul has raised almost $3 million. But so has Trey Grayson, and the secretary of state says most of his money comes from Kentuckians, not outsiders. And Grayson says Paul has no exclusive claim to tea party support.
"There's nobody who has any kind of ownership over the tea party," said Grayson. "I have a lot of supporters who are involved in the movement."
But Rand Paul's surge has put 38-year old Grayson on the defensive, and in the uncomfortable position of running negative ads. It's a first for the amiable, fifth generation Kentuckian, who's already won two statewide races. And the well-financed Paul is firing back.
The two are also waging war over who has the best endorsements. Sarah Palin, Steve Forbes and Senator Bunning are lining up behind Paul. Grayson's backers include Dick Cheney, congressman Hal Rogers and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. What effect, if any, the endorsements will have on the race remains to be seen. But on the campaign trail, it's clear both men have devoted followers.
"I take it that you're a Rand Paul supporter?" asked McVeigh.
"What is it about him that you like?" asked McVeigh.
"I like the fact that I think I can relate to him when I hear him speak and when I look at him. I don't think he has a pretentious attitude about him."
That's Jason LeChance, who was paying close attention to his favorite candidate at a small gathering in Lexington. A few days later, Doug Hendrickson was doing the same when Trey Grayson dropped by a popular, local deli in Maysville.
"I feel very sure that Trey Grayson would work towards getting some things done and getting us back on track, instead of just annihilation with everything, and blocking everything," said Hendrickson.
Keeping an objective eye on the race is University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross. Would a Rand Paul victory signal a future for the tea party movement in American politics?
"Part of the longevity of a movement ultimately is going to be is some type of leadership," says Gross. "And yet, one of the very parts of the tea party movement is that it doesn't really seem to have a leadership that's likely to be there for a long time."
Rand Paul is already signaling a desire to be that leader, and is preparing a platform around which the tea party can coalesce. But right now, he just wants to beat Trey Grayson, whom he believes has peaked.
"I think his peak was in July of 2009," said Paul. "Seriously. I think he peaked in July of 2009."
"We're gonna peak May 18th," said Grayson. "What Rand doesn't understand is that you don't peak any day until May 18th."
We'll find out who's right on Tuesday.