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In Ky. race, Tea Partier tones it down

Democrats try to paint Rand Paul as extreme

Rand Paul, candidate for US Senate, wants to dismantle some government agencies. Rand Paul, candidate for US Senate, wants to dismantle some government agencies. (Hunter Wilson/ AP/ Daily News)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 20, 2010

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First in a series of occasional articles on key midterm election races throughout the country.

OWENSBORO, Ky. — Smoke rose from the grill and pink lemonade flowed at a family farm late one afternoon last week. About 400 voters and families from western Kentucky munched on hamburgers and scooped baked beans as a prominent state Democrat verbally skewered Rand Paul.

“Rand Paul’s extremist views are out of touch and would hurt Kentuckians!’’ warned Crit Luallen, the state auditor. Paul observed impassively, hands on hips, from the side of the stage at the Red, White, and Blue picnic.

“Oh my goodness!’’ said Paul, darling of the Tea Party movement, taking his turn at the microphone. “Who are they talking about?’’

Paul is ahead in most polls in the Kentucky race for US Senate. But in campaign appearances across the state, he is being forced to reckon with allegations by Democrats — including his opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway — that he is extreme, insane, dangerous, or all of the above.

It is a dynamic in Senate races featuring candidates supported by the Tea Party movement across the country. Buoyed by successful primary runs, the GOP’s boisterous newcomers are repackaging their staunchly libertarian fervor for broader audiences, mostly by trying to tone it down. Democrats are countering with a barrage designed to scare voters about their goals — and their mental faculties.

“He is crazy,’’ Conway said of Paul, speaking to hundreds of union workers in Gilbertsville last week. “He is crazy, and we have to beat him back.’’

Paul has imposed tighter message discipline on himself after a disastrous television appearance in May, when he was pilloried for expressing doubts about parts of the Civil Rights Act. He is shunning nearly all interviews with out-of-state media. Unfriendly bloggers have been ejected from news conferences.

Taking the stage with a subdued demeanor at the Owensboro picnic, he never mentioned his proposals for dismantling government agencies such as the departments of education and energy. But he did draw cheers from the crowd by railing against the federal deficit and declaring: “Enough’s enough. We’ve come to take our government back.’’

The fortunes of candidates like Paul in 2010 will determine the Tea Party movement’s claim to legitimacy as a force in American politics. So far, it is already shaping the landscape beyond the current midterms, giving Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and other conservatives plenty of fuel as they flirt with the 2012 GOP presidential primary.

In Kentucky, which last elected a Democrat to the US Senate in 1992, some polls indicate Paul has a double-digit lead, while others suggest it is a dead heat.

He is the son of Republican Ron Paul, a Texas congressman who has made two runs for president and is a champion of libertarian philosophy. An ophthalmologist, Rand Paul has emerged as one of the loosely organized movement’s leading thinkers.

“The national image of the Tea Party, especially among people who don’t like it, is that they’re stupid,’’ said Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political science professor. “But Paul’s speeches are somewhat dull and intellectual. Unlike a lot of these other Tea Party folks, Paul’s got this bookish manner that doesn’t make him feel terribly extreme. He doesn’t feel like a Koran-burning lunatic.’’

His positions reflect a long-held wariness of government intrusion in business and personal life. In 1993, he founded Kentucky Taxpayers United as a state government watchdog. He has spoken at antitax rallies at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and has a framed poster from one of those events hanging in the waiting room of his practice in his hometown of Bowling Green.

In addition to abolishing major federal agencies, he is calling for a review of Department of Agriculture subsidies — not necessarily a popular stance in a state where a third of farmers rely on them. He has been critical of provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When discussing the Gulf Coast oil spill, Paul said “sometimes accidents happen.’’

“All you’ve got to do is read some of Rand Paul’s comments to know that he’s out of the mainstream,’’ Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky, a Democrat, said. “He started escaping his handlers and actually talking about what his real beliefs are. And when he started doing that, it scared people to death.’’

On the stump lately, Paul has been trying to channel the anger brewing in the electorate without getting into specific proposals. He rarely raises his voice. He appears so uncomfortable with the usual scrum of politics that he often arrives at events after they’ve started and leaves before they’ve ended.

“He’s a reluctant rock star here,’’ said Laurie Rhodebeck, political scientist at the University of Louisville. “He isn’t schmoozing around with some of the opinion leaders who could help him.’’

His statements have gotten him into trouble. After his surprising primary win in May over a candidate backed by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, Paul went on MSNBC and suggested that elements of the Civil Rights Act shouldn’t apply to private businesses. (He later said he supports the act).

Of less ideological significance, but damaging to his credibility with Kentucky voters, he derided the annual Fancy Farm picnic — a traditional kickoff of the political season — as a raucous party “where you worry about people throwing beer on you.’’ The event is held in a dry county. It is sponsored by a church. (Paul later apologized.)

Paul’s supporters overlook his blunders, chalking them up to inexperience on the stump.

“I think he can get painted to be more radical than he is,’’ Bob Crawford, a 48-year-old investment consultant from Leitchfield said as he sat on a park bench in Bowling Green. “They’re going to try to make him look fringe, very right wing. I don’t think he is. There has to be some realization that we’re spending too much money in this country and government can’t do everything for people.’’

At a Wal-Mart in Paducah last week, potential voters seemed to agree on one thing: Paul has some controversial views.

“They talk a lot but they don’t give any alternative,’’ said Sam Burgess, a 45-year-old independent voter from Paducah. “Someone that’s in the Tea Party, they just yak and yak and yak, but they don’t have any countersolutions.’’

He says he’ll vote for Conway, because he’s scared of Paul’s policies on limiting government entitlement programs.

“Rand Paul has some good ideas, I just wish he could talk about them a little better,’’ said Brian Kelley, a 34-year-old chef from Paducah who is a registered Republican. “He’s made some of the most boneheaded comments. If you believe it, fine. But you don’t have to throw it out there.’’

Democrats actually hold an advantage in Kentucky elections: About 56 percent of voters are registered Democrats, while 37 percent are registered Republicans. And Democrats hold most statewide elected offices. Still, the state’s Democrats often vote for Republicans running for Congress, and they are more aligned with the GOP on issues such as gun rights and abortion.

Conway has been targeting those voters, touting an “A’’ rating from the National Rifle Association and passing out “Sportsmen for Conway’’ bumper stickers. He acknowledges Tea Party movement anger.

“I don’t disparage the Tea Party,’’ he said in an interview. “I disparage Rand Paul.’’

Conway, who was elected attorney general in 2007, is a more polished politician than Paul. At a retreat last week held for trade unions and management from across the state, he shook hands, slapped backs, and stayed until most everyone had left.

Paul is more tightly controlled, with an aide constantly trailing him. At events last week, he declined to speak with journalists from Japan and Canada, as well as the Globe. But in his stump speeches, Paul sought to draw sharp distinctions with Democrats, saying in remarks at the picnic in Owensboro that President Obama “is wrong on every major issue of the day.’’ He called for “limited constitutional government’’ and “maximizing freedom.’’

“Some would say, ‘Now Rand Paul, he’s extreme,’ ’’ Paul said. “Do you know what’s extreme? What’s extreme is a $2 trillion deficit. . . . There is a day of reckoning coming.’’

During the seven-minute speech, Paul never mentioned the Tea Party movement.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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