LOUISVILLE — Rand Paul sounds nothing like any major candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky ever has, let alone a front-runner for the Republican nomination.
He complains as much about actions of those in his own party as he does about Democrats. He has said he doesn't need the Republican power structure to win the party's May 18 primary or the November election to replace U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning. And he rarely mentions Kentucky in stump speeches.
Instead, he sticks to his big-picture message of slashing spending, constraining federal powers and imposing term limits on members of Congress. And he brought with him into the race his own constituency of frustrated voters.
"I am seen as being pro-Tea Party movement, a part of the Tea Party movement," he told a crowd of hundreds last week at the Louisville Tea Party Freedom Rally. "This is a national referendum. If we win, it will be the biggest Tea Party victory in the country."
It also would mark quite a leap for a first-time candidate to win a U.S. Senate seat, although Paul is in no way a stranger to politics.
He is the son of longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul, whose 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination helped stir attention and concern about the national debt that became the foundation of the Tea Party movement.
The younger Paul, 47, has built on that.
"In my area, the Rand Paul message is the one that people want to hear coming from people running for office this year: We've got to shrink government and cut spending," said state Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green. De Cesare said he isn't endorsing in the primary because of his friendships with Paul and his rival, Trey Grayson, the secretary of state.
Paul's brand and frequent appearances in the past year on national news networks have helped him tap a campaign donor base from around the country on the way to raising more than $2.4 million.
Grayson has raised a similar amount, and both have used their coffers to take televised slugs at the other.
Grayson has tried to portray Paul as a kooky candidate with "strange ideas," especially on foreign policy issues, while Paul has sought to paint Grayson as the tool of political insiders ill-equipped to reform federal spending.
Growing up Paul
Randal Howard Paul, the third of five children, went by Randy until shortening it to Rand when he moved to Kentucky in the early 1990s, his father said.
At age 13, Rand accompanied his father, then in his first-term in Congress, to the 1976 Republican National Convention where Ron Paul was among four congressmen to back Ronald Reagan over Gerald Ford.
Rand Paul said watching his dad do that taught him one of his first political lessons that has guided him since: "The principles that you stand for are more important than gaining power."
"By going against the establishment, he chose a much more difficult path," he said.
Like his older brother, Ronnie, Rand Paul swam competitively in high school and later at Baylor University. He then followed in the footsteps of his father, who is also a doctor, by attending Duke University School of Medicine.
It was during his general surgery internship in Atlanta that he met Russellville native Kelley Ashby, who was working for Sprint at the time. After they married, they moved to Bowling Green, where Paul launched his ophthalmology practice.
He was quickly drawn into Kentucky politics. Within a year of Paul's arrival, the state legislature passed a health-insurance bill that imposed a provider tax on doctors.
"It's like, well how did I get so special that there was a special tax for me? ... How can that be constitutional?" Paul said. The legislature later repealed the bill.
Still, it prompted Paul to found the Kentucky Taxpayers Union, an advocacy group that circulated a no-tax pledge to candidates and awarded lawmakers who opposed taxes.
Paul said the group helped Brett Guthrie, now a Republican congressman from Bowling Green, win his first state Senate race in 1998 by 130 votes. "We put several thousand dollars worth of ads on saying that his opponent wouldn't take the taxpayer pledge, and he won a very close election," he said.
When Ron Paul launched his presidential campaign, Rand Paul spoke on his father's behalf in 10 states. That took his activism to a new level and helped him refine his economic message.
"Everybody said they were a conservative, but then when we were in power we doubled the debt ... to $10 trillion," Rand Paul said. "That's why this is a battle, and it's an important battle."
Tea Party movement
Two of Paul's favorite ideas to reform Washington are pushing for term limits — a cap of two six-year terms for senators and six two-year terms for House members — and eliminating earmarks for funding pet projects.
He'll mention them in speeches even if the audience includes U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is in his fifth term, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, who was first elected to Congress in 1980. Both built past re-election campaigns on their success in securing federal funds for Kentucky projects and programs by using earmarks.
"I think the country is bankrupt because we have too much of it on both sides of the aisle," Paul said after the 5th Congressional District Lincoln Day Dinner in Corbin on March 27, in which Rogers and McConnell sat stone-faced through his speech.
Paul, who spoke first, received a polite but unenthusiastic reception from the 400 Republican faithful that night.
Grayson, who spoke next, got to stay onstage to introduce McConnell, another signal of the top-ranking Republican's allegiances. Paul chalked it up to "gamesmanship."
"The establishment may not be with us, but the Tea Party is," he said.
Paul hasn't been secretive about his strategy of relying heavily on the voters who are most frustrated and concerned about the nation's $12.8 trillion debt. And they have embraced him. An overwhelming majority of people who attended Tea Party rallies in Lexington and Louisville last week wore Paul's stickers.
But not everyone who was initially attracted to Paul's candidacy has stuck with him.
Christi Gillespie, who started last summer as a Central Kentucky coordinator for Paul and later became a paid campaign staff member, quit in December. She said she was disappointed that Paul began to quietly court the very Republican leaders, such as McConnell, whom he had criticized.
"I just felt like he started playing the political game and he wasn't the one who was going to reform the party that I thought he was," Gillespie said. "I started questioning whether he could actually go up there and stand up to Mitch McConnell."
Another concern, Gillespie said, was Paul's handling of questions about whether the Guantánamo Bay detention center for accused terrorists should be closed.
Grayson aired a TV ad criticizing Paul for seemingly supporting its closure and the return of the prisoners to "their country of origin."
"If you're not going to convict them and you can't convict them and you're unclear, drop them back off in Afghanistan; it'll take them a while to get back over here," Paul said in a May 8, 2009, speech in Paducah.
Paul has denied arguing to close the detention center and blasted Grayson for "being intellectually dishonest."
But Gillespie, now a libertarian, said Paul used to agree with his father's position that it should be closed.
"What really bothered me was that he out-and-out lied about it," she said of Rand Paul. "I have felt like what he's done is he's tried to act like he has the same views as his father to keep the money coming in from out of state ... yet at the same time, while trying to get in the graces of Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment, has moderated his views or even changed them 100 percent."
Both Pauls, in separate interviews, said they don't agree with each other on everything. The elder Paul said he sometimes can be "bolder" on subjects, such as intelligence gathering.
Still, with most polls showing Republican voters are most concerned about the nation's spending and debt issues, Paul's message about pruning the federal government has generated buzz.
He can expound in great detail about his positions on all types of issues, including:
■ Defense spending: It should remain the largest chunk of federal spending.
■ Education: It should be governed locally, and the U.S. Department of Education should be abolished.
■ Mountaintop-removal coal mining: It's a property rights issue in which landowners can do what they want as long as it doesn't pollute their neighbor's land.
But Paul has occasionally shown an unfamiliarity with the state. He told the Herald-Leader last month that he wasn't aware of water-quality problems in Eastern Kentucky. And while at WYMT's studio in Hazard to tape an interview, he twice referred to Barbourville as Barboursville.
In his speeches, he rarely mentions state issues.
Even when asked directly whether he has specific priorities for Kentucky, Paul doesn't stray from his overarching philosophy.
"Yeah, I want to leave more money in Kentuckians' wallets," he said before a recent campaign rally. "I want to send less money to Washington and keep more money at home."