As Kentucky junior Sen. Rand Paul and about 35 Louisa Rotarians bowed their heads before lunch last Thursday, the preacher led the crowd in praying for wisdom and guidance.
He was talking about a possible run by Paul for the White House in 2016.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the new Tea Party darling and Senate pariah following this month's government shutdown, might have won this week's battle for headlines with a red-meat speech in Iowa on Friday night, but Paul spent the week laying the groundwork to win a larger battle.
In 15 stops around the vastly different regions of Kentucky, Paul was on a path toward the Republican nomination with a subtle and almost invisible strategy that has been a hallmark of his unlikely political career, odd traits considering the ear-splitting decibel level of the anti-government constituency that put the freshman senator on the map.
Over the last six months, following Paul's explosion onto the national scene and a meaningless frontrunner status in the 2016 Republican nomination contest, the senator has been moving like a cat burglar to expand his support base beyond the Tea Party without alienating them, ever mindful of the way his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, was marginalized and ridiculed as a fringe candidate by the Republican establishment.
He has been clear that he won't announce a decision until after the 2014 midterm elections, but visits to early-voting states like Iowa, interviews in unlikely publications like Vogue and uneasy alliances with establishment Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell make clear that Paul wants to hit the ground running if he decides to jump in next November.
"There are two votes in my house, and my wife has both of them," Paul joked with Eastern Kentuckians who encouraged him to run on Thursday.
There are also two elections on Paul's mind in 2016, presenting a real "conundrum," the senator's most-used word Thursday as he railed against spending but said shutting down the government was a bad idea.
Paul has made clear he wants to run to keep his Senate seat when he is up for re-election in 2016, but nobody near him seems to know what to do about a Kentucky law that prevents candidates from being on the same ballot twice.
The hope is that Republicans will finally win both chambers in the statehouse, allowing them to change the law, or that Frankfort will have to change the law under pressure from a public enthused to have one of its own in the national hunt.
Regardless, or "irregardless" as Paul sometimes says, the senator isn't waiting for a solution.
Jokes and leadership
It was clear Thursday that campaigning in Kentucky is giving Paul invaluable practice for a presidential bid.
In Paintsville, Paul had a crowded diner laughing, just as the crowds who came to see his father in Iowa in 2012 and 2008 laughed, with a joke about the Federal Reserve and the nation's $17 trillion debt, not generally considered comedic staples
"My son gave me that one," Paul chuckled. "I think he stole it from Jimmy Kimmel."
Paul's kids get $10 for the good jokes they give him to use on the stump, but true to form as a libertarian-minded, small-government, free-market capitalist, the senator said he is offering $15 if the joke gets a lot of laughs.
Hardly a jovial man, Paul shares the professional card shark poker face of McConnell. Even staffers closest to the men admit to rarely knowing what they're really thinking.
But Paul cracks himself up, making jokes about the shutdown ("I've got good news and bad news. The good news is your government is open; the bad news is your government is open."); his battles with Sen. John McCain ("I had this debate with a prominent senator I won't name from Arizona."); and the wastefulness of federal spending, such as $8 million in Homeland Security funding for Fargo, North Dakota.
"If the terrorists get to Fargo, we might as well give up," the senator kidded the Paintsville crowd.
Jokes, combined with Paul's emergence as a leader in the U.S. Senate on topics such as opposing military strikes in Syria, reveal the change Paul represents within the Republican Party and his improbable role as the leader of that change.
The post-Sept. 11 Republican Party, victorious under President George W. Bush and anchored now by Sen. John McCain and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seems confused and angered by Paul's ascension, quietly certain that Paul is one major terrorist attack away from obscurity.
But Paul has seen support and invitations to speak erupt since he spoke for 13 hours on the Senate floor about the threat of drone use domestically, a seismic shift for a party that ran ads featuring Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in a 2002 Senate campaign against Vietnam veteran and triple-amputee Max Cleland.
The crowds like his jokes about homeland security spending and the Congressional Budget Office and auditing the Pentagon. At every stop in Eastern Kentucky, they sat in rapt attention, delivering standing ovations at the conclusion, as Paul's campaign-style events are similar to his father's in being more seminar than pep rally.
The Louisa Rotarians had never heard from a U.S. senator before, and while they quietly asked him about Obamacare, Benghazi and Fast and Furious as he ate, they heard a speech that included Paul liking Obama personally and searching for common ground, then committing heresy by criticizing "those people" on the House Appropriations Committee.
The head of those people and that committee is Rep. Hal Rogers, and Paul was standing in Rogers' district when he said it.
But if the combination of an indirect swipe at Rogers and talk of liking a president despised in Eastern Kentucky seems like Paul is betraying his party, it reveals the strategy Paul is using to keep his Tea Party base on his side while growing his support beyond a relatively small minority that has angered much of the voting public.
At two stops Thursday morning, Paul deftly handed the microphone to Tea Party U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie to answer some questions from the audience, standing back as Massie railed against the "cesspool" that is Washington and flatly denying that a default on the U.S. debt was ever a possibility in the last round of budget fighting, accusing Obama of making it up and lying about the threat.
Many of Massie's constituents might blame Obama and Democrats for the shutdown or believe default was a conspiracy tactic, but swing voters in Ohio and Florida see things differently.
So when Paul took the microphone back from Massie, he trained his remarks on what he says is the success of cutting spending through sequestration and pitches his proposal for "Economic Freedom Zones," legislation he plans to introduce this year that would set income and corporate tax rates at 5 percent and cut payroll taxes by 2 percent in counties that have unemployment rates of about 12 percent for five years.
Let Cruz and Massie fire up the crowd, Paul's strategy suggests. He has bigger audiences in mind.
As Paul made the rounds in one of the poorest parts of the country in a Toyota Highlander sporting a worn "Stand with Rand" bumper sticker and driven by his deputy state director, showing up at places no Kentucky senator had before, there were three consistent elements from the crowd at every stop: Kentucky basketball attire, questions about the evils of the Environmental Protection Agency and encouragement to run for president.
The crowds nod as Paul answers, revealing his knowledge on some but not all of their issues and sharing their disdain for EPA regulations.
While Kentuckians admire the way Paul follows up his speeches with action in Washington, Republicans and Democrats there have come to begrudgingly admire, or at least accept, the way the senator makes his points without kamikaze runs to crash the economy or achieve personal glory the way so many see Cruz doing.
Paul has indicated in recent days he might block the nomination of Janet Yellen, President Barack Obama's pick to chair the Federal Reserve. But White House officials say they're not worried, mostly because Republicans are in retreat after the public blamed them for the shutdown but also because Paul has demonstrated he is not the "whacko bird" McCain accused him and Cruz of being.
The senator might filibuster the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan as he did last spring, winning affection from Republicans and Democrats, but after 13 hours, the senator had made his point and Brennan now heads the CIA.
On Thursday, local police and officials waited outside the Estep Family Restaurant in Grayson on a cold and overcast morning, smiling, excited for the man who was coming to see them.
Inside the dusty wood-floored restaurant, it was standing room only, a veritable training ground for the diners of Iowa and New Hampshire. Each table had a neon yellow piece of paper for a centerpiece wedged between the ketchup and mustard that read: "Thank you Rand for standing up for the little guy. I won't forget."
Paul went person to person, posing for pictures with folks wearing University of Kentucky sweatshirts, his staff observing that he has improved greatly in his interactions with voters even though he will likely never possess a back-slapping politician's touch.
As Paul headed to the door, a phone interview with Laura Ingraham waiting, Grayson Mayor George Steele leaned in to give him a message.
"It would be an honor to call you Mr. President," Steele said.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.