Rand Paul once spoke of the need to "take an ax to government," and he believes Kentuckians are ready to let him chop.
With the country deep in debt, the prevailing mood is behind his message of cutting federal spending, lowering taxes and forcing a balanced budget, said Paul, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
"The wind is at our back," he told supporters in a speech in August. Opponents can attack him, he said, "but there is a huge movement going on in our country and they can't stop us."
That was certainly true in the May Republican primary, when conservatives fed up with their own party's role in bank bailouts and deficit spending helped push him to a crushing 23.3 percentage point win.
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Since then, though, missteps, negative stories and television advertisements attacking his views as risky or off-base have influenced the race.
Polls have generally shown Paul leading his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, but some recent surveys calculate the race as a statistical dead heat.
To pull out a victory over the next month, Paul's strategy is to link Conway at every turn to President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders who aren't popular in conservative Kentucky.
At the same time, Paul will try to drive home the message that he will fight both Democrats and wayward Republicans to pull the country out of the red.
Paul believes his message will prevail because so many people feel passionately that government has gotten too big and too deep in debt.
"The mood of the country really is for, to put it bluntly, throwing the rascals out, and I think I'm perceived as one who will try," he said.
Conway, however, says Paul's views on cutting the size and reach of the federal government would have painful consequences for Kentuckians.
"Rand Paul is out of the mainstream of Kentucky voters," Conway said. "He's a risk."
A famous father
Paul capitalized on a number of factors to get within striking distance of a U.S. Senate seat.
One key advantage was his father, Ron Paul, a longtime Republican congressman from Texas and two-time presidential candidate famous for his unflinching libertarian views.
Paul explained in one speech how his father's name could help him win the 2010 GOP primary.
"I couldn't have done this two years ago, but the reason why I'll tell you it's winnable now is, and I'm honest about this, my father's fame helps me quite a bit," Paul said. "It helps me in raising money, it helps me get started, it helps the media pay attention to me. Without that, I couldn't do it."
Paul tapped into his father's national donor base to help raise more than $3.5 million by June 30, the last reporting deadline.
Paul was no stranger to politics, but in the primary campaign against Secretary of State Trey Grayson, Paul was able to cast himself as an outsider by criticizing the spending sins of both parties.
Grayson was backed by party leaders, helping further the idea of Paul as a crusader against the bloated establishment, in a year when many conservative Republicans were ready to dump that establishment.
"I think maybe Trey failed to see the significance of the conservative backlash against the liberal things that are going on in Washington," said Russ Randall, GOP chairman in the 1st Congressional District in Western Kentucky.
Paul, in contrast, caught the wave, hooking up early with the Tea Party movement of people pushing to cut federal spending and the reach of the federal government.
Many are Republicans disgruntled with some of their own party leaders.
Paul also benefited from numerous appearances on national news and opinion programs, particularly conservative-leaning Fox News, in part because of his father and his ties to the Tea Party movement as its profile grew.
"I think what turned it into a blowout was recognizing from Day 1 it was an outsider's year and having an opponent who ran as an insider," said David Adams, who ran Paul's primary campaign.
Since that big win, Paul has been roughed up some.
One example was when he suggested in a television interview that the 1964 Civil Rights Act went too far in barring private business owners from refusing to serve minorities.
Paul quickly said he would have voted for the act, but the blow-up was exactly what some Republicans feared — that Paul's statements would create an opening for Conway in a year when it should be easy to keep a GOP seat in Kentucky.
More recently, he has faced negative television ads from Conway, one quoting a 2009 speech in which Paul said the best way to shore up Medicare would be requiring participants to pay a $2,000 deductible, while acknowledging that would be tough to sell in a campaign.
Paul also faced recent criticism for belonging to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that provides a forum for controversial views such as speculation that President Obama used hypnotism to win votes, particularly among Jews, and that children should not be vaccinated.
A campaign spokesman said Paul belongs to the group because it favors market-oriented reforms in health care. The head of the organization said Paul had nothing to do with the controversial articles.
Even some Republicans are uncomfortable with some of Paul's views, though, said Lisa Graas, a conservative Republican blogger who supported Grayson in the primary.
"We're going to sit it out," Graas said of the election.
'We've had enough'
But many people still relish the thought of sending Paul to Washington as an envoy of their disgust.
"We're here because we've had enough," H.E. "Beaver" Corder II, a real-estate broker and auctioneer, said in introducing Paul at an appearance in Somerset last week. "We're frustrated, fed up with runaway spending."
It's not hard to describe Paul's overall platform — cut federal spending and taxes, require a balanced budget by law, put term limits in place and scale back the reach of the federal government.
"For 60 years we've been going toward more federal everything. I want to shift the balance back towards more local control of most things," Paul said.
In politics, however, the devil is in the details, and Democrats have raised concerns about how Paul's smaller-government philosophy would work after decades of expanding federal programs.
Paul has suggested, for instance, that there should be less federal involvement in regulating mine safety and that the Americans with Disabilities Act goes too far; has said farm subsidies are not a good idea; and has called for abolishing the federal Department of Education.
He said he would introduce plans to balance the federal budget in one year or over five years — something observers said would require deep cuts — but said he could not provide comprehensive details on how to do that before Election Day.
Paul said the people can't expect lower taxes but a continued raft of federal projects.
"You either have to have higher taxes to pay for all of this, or if you want to live in a society with limited taxes, you have to acknowledge you're gonna get less stuff," Paul said. "Does that mean there'll be no stuff? No, there's $2.4 trillion worth of money going into the federal government. Let's just live with spending $2.4 trillion."
Democrats charge that Paul's views on scaling back government would hurt many people in Kentucky, which gets more back in federal spending than it pays in taxes.
"It would be a shame to let a guy like that be a United State senator from a state like Kentucky that has so many needs," said Democratic state Rep. Greg Stumbo, speaker of the state House of Representatives. "He's a dangerous man."
Paul, however, argues that what is really extreme is the deficit and that his message is very much in the mainstream. Polls show most people support term limits and requiring a balanced budget, Paul said.
"The reason they can't really run against me is because they can't run on the issues," Paul said. "They have to somehow vilify me personally."
Observers said that in addition to keeping the spotlight on unpopular Democratic leaders, Paul also needs to stay focused on his core message and avoid gaffes or statements that could add to concerns about him.
"The less he does, the better," said Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.
Paul has tried to stay on message, telling the media at one recent event he would only take questions about the budget, and only from local reporters.
Grayson said Paul's approach in the general election is different than in the primary, when Paul posted his schedule publicly and gave a lot of interviews.
Paul is acting like an incumbent protecting a lead, Grayson said: "He is a Republican in a state that generally votes Republican at the federal level, especially in a year like this."