CORBIN — On one of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Trey Grayson's recent campaign trips, what was supposed to be a meet-and-greet stop at a soda bottling plant quickly became a formal job interview.
"OK, so why do you want to be senator?" asked Republican voter Sharon Gant, who, as human resources manager at Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. of Corbin, grills applicants for a living.
Grayson, framing his response the way a prep school debate team member might, responded: "I want to be senator because I'm concerned about the debt that our country has, and I'm concerned about how that's affecting our economy."
Gant agreed with the sentiment but wasn't completely sold. She then told Grayson why she and some Kentucky Republicans aren't automatically embracing the Harvard-educated Kentucky native and two-term secretary of state the way they might have in a different election year.
"I think what people are worried about you more than anything is that we don't want the status quo," Gant said. "So you need to keep that in mind."
Grayson is all too aware.
Without scandal or obvious blunder, Grayson found himself in the role of toppled front-runner last fall as many Republican voters gravitated toward Bowling Green eye doctor Rand Paul, the son of former GOP presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul.
The younger Paul, in an obvious contrast with Grayson, urged voters to buck "the establishment" by sending a so-called outsider to Washington to advocate for smaller government and less spending.
Suddenly, Grayson and his label of "Republican rising star" seemed out of style.
"This is a once-in-a-generation different election. Nine out of 10 elections it's not even close, and Trey wins the primary with ease," said state Rep. Adam Koenig, an Erlanger Republican who is backing Grayson. "But because of the national mood ... as well as the mounds of free press — or earned media I should say — that Rand gets from Fox News, he's gotten much more name recognition than he otherwise would have."
Paul's surge in the polls and the popularity of his shrink-the-government philosophy has forced Grayson for the first time in his career to be the aggressive challenger, an unnatural role for him.
And it has wedged Grayson into an awkward spot when trying to argue for restrained spending, as opposed to Paul's calls for dramatic cuts and program eliminations to immediately reduce the nation's debt.
'Common sense' label
Grayson has campaigned heavily in recent weeks in southeastern Kentucky's 5th Congressional District, which has been represented for the last 30 years by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset.
Rogers has directed hundreds of millions of federal dollars to that region for projects: health centers, flood walls, water lines and roads.
While Paul lambastes such spending through so-called earmarks for being part of the nation's money problems, Grayson has delicately carved out a position that says the process needs reforming without offending Rogers.
"Eliminating all the earmarks is completely irresponsible for a state like Kentucky," Grayson said at an April 5 forum in Barbourville.
His point was that representatives from smaller states can use earmarks to tag money that might otherwise be swooped up by larger congressional delegations. But that nuanced view is difficult to convey to voters who see earmarks as a four-letter word.
"Too much of earmarks — that just leads to more spending," Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney told a reporter while sitting with Grayson in the mayor's office. McBurney, a Grayson supporter, said he'd like to see earmarks eliminated.
A half-hour before, Grayson toured the city hall and saw two examples of federal funding's effect on Corbin: Employees were readying the 911 dispatch center to be outfitted with equipment funded by a U.S. Homeland Security grant, and the fire department is awaiting word about funding for a new fire station requested by U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning.
"Obviously we've got a big federal deficit so we're going to have to cut back on some spending, but I think it's important that we still get some of the things you need here in Kentucky," he told the firefighters.
Grayson later said he shares with voters a "visceral anger" toward the federal government and understands why Paul's call to throw spending patterns in reverse seems so appealing on the surface.
"But I actually want to go fix something. I don't want to just go complain about it," Grayson said. "His dad (Ron Paul), while relevant to the debate in Washington, hasn't ever done anything to make Washington work better. He just votes 'No.'"
In this year's GOP primary, Grayson has dubbed himself a "common sense conservative." He said he disagrees with much of the substance of the recent health care bill Congress passed. While speaking to about 20 people at University of the Cumberlands, Grayson talked in wonkish detail about why he didn't think the bill would succeed in lowering costs.
He's spent much of his television ad time criticizing Paul on foreign policy issues. But even his campaign's internal polling shows that voters are keyed in on national spending and debt issues.
Path to politics
A fifth-generation Kentuckian and son of a prominent Northern Kentucky banker, Charles Merwin Grayson III, nicknamed "Trey," first registered to vote as a Democrat. He jokes to voters that he later "reformed" and switched parties.
After earning an MBA and law degree at the University of Kentucky, Grayson took a traditional route into politics. He started his career as a tax attorney and business consultant. By 2000, he and his wife, Nancy, whom he met at his sister's wedding, had become community volunteers.
In 2003, he successfully ran for secretary of state as a fresh-faced outsider. Three years later, Grayson flirted with challenging Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher in the primary after an investigation into that administration's hiring practices dimmed Fletcher's re-election chances. Grayson backed off and handily won re-election in 2007 despite Fletcher's loss at the top of the GOP ticket.
Grayson, who turned 38 on Sunday, points to his management of the secretary of state's office as part of his fiscal conservative credentials.
He tells Republican audiences that he cut 15 percent from the agency's budget. Most of that, though, was mandated by the General Assembly and governor.
Grayson has been restrained with his travel spending. A Herald-Leader review of his expenses paid and reimbursed by the state shows he spent $10,000 on travel since January 2008.
That amount is about a third of the expenses Democratic Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo incurred in the same time and about $3,000 more than Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway.
Handshaking to victory?
As secretary of state, Grayson has built up goodwill among many by appearing at schools and campaigning for more robust civic education. He also has made the Republican Lincoln Day dinner circuit each year and gotten to know many GOP officials.
Grayson is banking on support from a network of prominent supporters in Laurel, Whitley and Knox counties, in his home area of Northern Kentucky and among young professionals and so-called chamber of commerce Republicans in Louisville.
Much of the more than $2.4 million Grayson has raised has come from Kentucky donors, as opposed to Paul, who has collected a majority of his more than $2.4 million from out-of-state donors. Grayson points to that as a sign that Paul might have generated more buzz but might not have as many votes locked up as it seems.
Endorsements for Grayson from officials in heavily Republican southern Kentucky go a long way because they have influence with family members, friends and neighbors, said McBurney, the Corbin mayor. And turnout in those areas is expected to be high May 18 because of hotly contested primaries for local offices.
"I think you're doing the right thing. Your name is brought up all the time," McBurney told Grayson.
One key Republican from the region with a frigid relationship with Grayson is Senate President David Williams of Burkesville, who expressed interest in running in this race but was rebuffed by party leaders in favor of Grayson. And to Grayson's surprise, he failed to get the backing of one of his mentors, Bunning, who last week said he supported Paul.
Meanwhile, Kentucky's senior senator, McConnell, has raised money for Grayson but hasn't endorsed him outright.
Grayson has tried to squeeze much out of the endorsements he has gotten.
Three weeks ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney gave his support for Grayson, specifically on national defense issues.
Part of Grayson's problem, however, is one of timing. He's running in an election where the support of other politicians isn't necessarily desirable, said Gant, the bottling plant employee.
“People my age, we feel like we need some changes,” she said. “We don’t need any more career politicians and we don’t need any more attorneys.”