FRANKFORT — A new Kentucky Poll shows novice political candidate Rand Paul with a commanding 12-point lead over Trey Grayson, the Republican Party establishment's choice in the GOP race for U.S. Senate in Kentucky.
The state's Democratic primary to replace U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning is closer, with Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo holding a seven -point lead over Attorney General Jack Conway, according to the poll commissioned by the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV in Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville.
With less than two weeks to go before the May 18 election, Conway remains within striking distance of Mongiardo, who leads 39 percent to 32 percent — a result that is within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. An additional 17 percent remain undecided, and 12 percent favor three lesser-known candidates.
"I wouldn't say it's a lock by any stretch, but I would rather be in Mongiardo's situation than Conway's," said Del Ali, president of Research 2000 in Olney, Md., which conducted the poll May 2-4.
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"I think it's a close race that could end up with the winner grabbing a victory margin of only 3 to 4 percentage points," he said.
Among Republicans, Paul holds a 44 percent to 32 percent lead over Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Seventeen percent remain undecided, and 7 percent favor three lesser-known candidates.
"It's Paul's race to lose," Ali said. "Grayson's best hope is for Paul to self-destruct."
The statewide telephone poll surveyed 500 Democrats and 500 Republicans who are likely to vote May 18.
Because the Democratic primary has no runaway leader, the candidates probably will continue flooding the state with TV ads that attack each other, said Joe Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University's Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement.
"I'd say the race is too close to call, but Mongiardo definitely has the advantage at this point," Gershtenson said. "I think it will come down to who can get their voters out."
The poll shows Mongiardo leading Conway among male voters 43 percent to 29 percent while each captured 35 percent of the female vote.
"That's surprising," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Attorneys general generally do better with males because of their crime-fighting image."
White voters favored Mongiardo 40 percent to 32 percent, but blacks sided with Conway 33 percent to 29 percent.
"It looks like a low turnout will hurt Conway," Ali said. "The best bet for Conway is to motivate women and minorities to come out and vote."
One way Conway might attract women and minorities is to emphasize his support of the health care bill that Congress recently passed. The poll found that those groups were slightly more likely to support the health care bill than other Democrats.
Overall, 44 percent of Democratic voters agreed with Conway's support of the bill, while 38 percent agreed with Mongiardo's opposition to the bill. An additional 18 percent weren't sure.
Mongiardo led in most age groups, particularly among those voters 60 and older. In that age group, which is more likely to vote in a primary election, Mongiardo had 41 percent of the vote to Conway's 34 percent.
The poll showed Mongiardo and Conway with similar name ID among voters.
Mongiardo was viewed favorably by 61 percent of respondents and Conway by 65 percent. Mongiardo recorded a 28 percent unfavorable rating and Conway 23 percent.
Mongiardo campaign spokesman Kim Geveden said the poll confirms Mongiardo is "the candidate of Kentucky's working families."
Conway's camp dismissed the poll results and claimed it has momentum in the race, referring to an internal poll it released earlier Wednesday that showed Conway ahead.
Former U.S. Customs agent Darlene Fitzgerald Price of Whitley City garnered 6 percent of the vote, Henderson physician James Buckmaster got 4 percent, and Louisville businessman Maurice Sweeney got 2 percent.
In the Republican race, the poll found that a plurality of Republican voters support Paul's pledge to push a ban on all budget earmarks, which allow members of Congress to funnel money to projects in their home districts.
Nearly half of respondents, 47 percent, said they agree with Paul's stance, while 28 percent said they agree with Grayson that it would be irresponsible to ban all earmarks.
That disparity has helped put Grayson "in a position you don't want to be," Ali said.
Still, Grayson's campaign held out hope that recent endorsements by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers, two politicians famous for diverting federal spending to pet projects in Kentucky, would push him to victory.
Both endorsements came while the poll was being conducted earlier this week. Rogers endorsed on Monday and McConnell's support was made public in a TV ad that began airing Tuesday.
"We are looking forward to May 18," said Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson, referring to an internal poll that shows the race closer.
Ali said he thinks McConnell's endorsement is offset by an earlier endorsement for Paul by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, who decided not to seek re-election this year. "I don't think McConnell's endorsement does anything for Grayson," Ali said.
The Paul campaign all but declared victory Wednesday, saying it's time for Grayson to "decide how he wants to be remembered in this race."
A strong point for Paul is his support among people 60 and older, where he leads 53 percent to 27 percent. He led by smaller margins in all other age groups.
"Grayson is supposed to be the establishment candidate, but here he trails badly among older voters," Sabato said. "That's not a very good sign."
Although Grayson has tried to woo older voters with ads touting his support for continuing Social Security, many of Paul's backers come from the Tea Party movement, whose members generally are older than 50, said University of Louisville political science professor Laurie Rhodebeck.
Among men, Paul grabbled 45 percent of the vote to Grayson's 33 percent. Paul led among female voters, 42 percent to 31 percent.
And respondents had a more favorable view of Paul than Grayson — 74 percent to 62 percent. Grayson recorded a 26 percent unfavorable rating compared with Paul's 12 percent.
Three other candidates in the Republican primary drew scant support in the poll.
Former Superintendent of Public Instruction John Stephenson of Fort Mitchell got 3 percent of the vote. So did Gurley Martin, 86, a World War II veteran from Owensboro. Jon J. Scribner of Gray in Knox County got 1 percent of the vote.