No candidate this year has been a lightning rod for controversy like Rand Paul. In May, Paul, 47, became the most prominent Tea Party insurgent to topple an Establishment candidate in a GOP primary, and his blowout victory cemented the movement as a nascent electoral force. Since emerging at the forefront of the antigovernment brigade, however, Paul has been dogged by a succession of potential slipups.
Some were silly, like the tales of the frat-boy antics that introduced the world to a mysterious deity known as Aqua Buddha. Others were weightier, including his assertion that a provision of the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional and his contention that the Obama Administration's hard line toward BP after the Gulf Coast oil spill was "un-American." The latest incident to mar the campaign was an altercation before an Oct. 25 debate, in which a Paul campaign coordinator stepped on the neck of a liberal activist who had been wrestled to the ground. Paul's camp condemned the incident, but with the Republican locked in a tight battle with Democrat Jack Conway a race that could determine the fate of the GOP's bid to win back the upper chamber the episode could damage an already fragile campaign.
Given Paul's ideological beliefs, penchant for bomb throwing and political inexperience, some growing pains were inevitable. "A lot of people are looking for Rand Paul to self-destruct," a Kentucky political analyst told TIME after Paul's primary win over Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state and the favored candidate of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. "I don't think he thinks he's wrong very often. I'm surprised he hasn't made a big mistake."
The prediction was prescient, but early on it seemed the Bowling Green ophthalmologist and son of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul could do no wrong. State GOP leaders lined up in support of Grayson, but Paul won going away, nabbing 59% of the vote after a campaign that seemed perfectly tuned to the frequency of an angry electorate. His libertarian leanings, his willingness to position himself as a foil to party bosses, his social conservatism (he opposes abortion, gay marriage and drug decriminalization) and his famous last name made him a vessel for the Tea Party's hopes. After winning the primary, he told onlookers he was delivering a message from the movement: "We have come to take our government back."
First he has to get by Conway, 41, a task that has proved tougher than many expected. The state's attorney general is a moderate Democrat who prescribes fiscal discipline and small-business tax relief as the antidotes to a sagging budget gap and Kentucky's 10% unemployment rate. But his support for two linchpins of the Obama Administration's legislative agenda the $787 billion stimulus bill and health care reform isn't helping him, nor is the allegation that he supported cap and trade. (Conway is adamant about opposing it.)
Like most Democrats struggling to distance themselves from their party's leadership, Conway says he sympathizes with citizens who are fed up with Washington. "I'm frustrated," he told TIME in an interview after the primary. "But the question is, How do we use this emotion? Do we use it to heat the building, or do we use it to burn the building down?" He has labored to paint Paul as an extremist more interested in serving as de facto leader of a movement bent on smaller government than on governing itself. "This idea that you can make the government go away and then all of a sudden return to another time," he said, "is a fallacy."
Conway's problem is that plenty of Kentuckians are eager to scale back the government's reach if not see it vanish outright. According to totals compiled by RealClearPolitics, Paul leads by an average of 7 points in the polls, though a September CNN/TIME/Opinion Research Corp. survey found the race knotted at 46% apiece, and analysts believe the race has been tightening. While registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, the Bluegrass State tilts right of center. The race will come down to swing voters, many of whom are socially conservative Democrats in the western part of the state.
In its closing stages, the race has been not just close but also contentious. In early October, Conway's camp ran an ad that noted Paul's college membership in a secret society that called the Bible a "hoax," name-checked Aqua Buddha a figure, according to a report in GQ, to whom Paul made a Baylor University woman pray during a kidnapping prank and seemed geared to raise doubts about Paul's Christian faith. At the pair's next debate, the Republican refused to shake Conway's hand.
While the campaign coordinator's attack on MoveOn.org member Lauren Valle who suffered a concussion, according to the group was an ugly prelude, the Oct. 25 debate was a tamer affair. Still, the candidates' apparent animus for each other peeked through. "You have a simplistic worldview," Paul told Conway at one point. Conway replied, "Are you talking down to me?" Paul persisted. "You don't really want to present the whole facts. You oversimplify things into sound bites because all you care about is winning," he said. "You don't want to have an intelligent discussion." But Paul, too, has backtracked from some of his more controversial positions, including his stance on Medicare deductibles. If the dumbing-down charge were true of either candidate, they'd hardly be alone.