FRANKFORT — Republican Elliot Polach is disenchanted with his party's leaders in Washington, many of whom voted for a bank bailout and other big-ticket spending bills in the past year.
These days, he'd rather be called a conservative than a Republican.
Polach, the 18-year-old founder of the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party in Paducah, is emblematic of deep and widespread frustration that has surfaced in Republican primaries nationwide.
In Kentucky, first-time political candidate Rand Paul has harnessed the anti-Republican-establishment vibe among conservatives to raise $1.4 million and take a surprising lead in early polls in the race for U.S. Senate over Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
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"The party definitely is split now philosophically between moderates and conservatives," Polach said.
Paul, the Bowling Green eye surgeon and son of Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has attracted support from many of the free-market, low-tax activists who backed his father's 2008 presidential bid and has tried to frame this primary race as feisty outsider versus status quo establishment candidate.
"The conservative groups who are serious about balanced budgets and creating real jobs in the private sector without overspending and bailout nonsense know they have a champion in Rand Paul," said Paul campaign manager David Adams.
Adams said any party split "is between those who like big government trashing the Constitution and those who are ready to tame the beast and return the power to the people."
Meanwhile, Grayson says he's taking the big-tent approach and seeking the backing of a wide swath of Republicans, including the fiscal conservatives that Paul considers his base.
"I'm a mainstream, commonsense conservative," he says.
Brad Cummings, a Grayson backer and the former chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, acknowledges that there is unrest in his party, but said it's wrong for conservatives to unleash their displeasure on Grayson.
"In Kentucky, that is being thrust unfairly upon a very good man who has shown nothing but a conservative record when it comes to fiscal restraint in his office of secretary of state," he said of Grayson.
Both Grayson and Paul are seeking endorsements of two national groups that are receiving heavy media attention for their conservatism — the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
"These groups are known among conservatives as strong organizations and get behind candidates to help them win," said Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson.
The Club for Growth is a fiscally conservative organization with a political action committee based in Washington. It endorses and helps fund Republican candidates who support limited government and lower taxes.
Founded in 1999, it claims over 40,000 members. The organization invented the "RINO (Republican In Name Only) Watch" list to monitor "Republican office holders around the nation who have advanced egregious anti-growth, anti-freedom or anti-free market policies."
Mike Connolly, spokesman for Club for Growth, said his group has met with both Grayson and Paul, but would not say if it will endorse in the Kentucky race.
The Conservatives Fund, established in 2008 and chaired by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, is a political action committee "dedicated to electing strong conservatives to the United States Senate.
"We do not support liberal Republicans and we are not affiliated with the Republican Party or any of its campaign committees," the group says on its Web site.
Some observers think DeMint is using the fund to improve his chances of becoming U.S. Senate minority leader, a post now held by Kentucky's Mitch McConnell.
Grayson has criticized Paul for not saying whether he would support McConnell for the party leadership spot in the Senate.
"I'm not planning to endorse anyone at this time for leadership but I definitely think it is advantageous for Kentucky to have McConnell in leadership," Paul said. "I just wish he would campaign for me but I'm not the establishment candidate."
Repeated phone calls and e-mails to DeMint and the fund for comment on the Kentucky race and McConnell were not returned.
At 37, Grayson has been considered one of the party's brightest hopes ever since he won the statewide race for secretary of state in 2003 and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2007 despite Democrat Steve Beshear's victory over Republican Ernie Fletcher in the governor's race.
Still, he rejects the label of establishment candidate, saying "my support cuts across all levels."
If anyone is an establishment candidate in the race, it's the one whose father is a sitting member of Congress, Grayson said.
That's ridiculous, Paul said.
"There's only been one candidate feted at the National Republican Senate headquarters with about 20 senators giving him money and only one candidate Mitch McConnell is raising money for," he said.
Republican consultant Scott Jennings, who has been involved in several Kentucky campaigns, said it would be a mistake for any candidate to accuse an opponent of being an establishment candidate because he is getting help from McConnell.
"Mitch McConnell is a true conservative, and is well-liked in Kentucky," Jennings said. "Kentucky had a referendum on McConnell last year and he won re-election."
Besides labeling Grayson part of the establishment, Paul also tries to tie Grayson with former Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Grayson, as a student at Harvard, was a registered Democrat who voted for Clinton. "I've never backed Bill Clinton for anything," Paul said.
Grayson supporter Cummings said he, too, voted for Clinton. "Many of us have changed our viewpoints since we were 20," he said.
Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley said Paul should continue to brand himself as the outsider and Grayson should stress his conservative stances, especially during the primary election.
"I think Grayson is in the position of strength," Lasley said. "Paul certainly has established himself as a credible candidate by his ability to raise millions but it will be interesting to see how Paul fares when the candidates are scrutinized on other issues."
One of the most conservative members of Kentucky's General Assembly, Republican Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington, said he takes Grayson and Paul at their word that they are conservatives.
"But we don't have a voting record on either one," Lee said. "What I'm concerned about is whether whoever wins will adhere to the strong conservative principles we Kentuckians want.
"We will not put up with anything less."