FRANKFORT — Aware that Kentucky's U.S. Senate race is considered a tossup with national import, political operatives wasted no time Wednesday trying to define Kentucky's newly nominated candidates as out of touch with the state's conservative-leaning Democrats.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Wednesday in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington that Republican Rand Paul "represents the most extreme elements of the Republican Party; a candidate who has vowed to abolish the Departments of Education and the Federal Reserve; who vows to oppose, oppose, oppose at a time when we need constructive solutions to the challenges we face."
Meanwhile, Paul maintained in a telephone interview Wednesday "what really is extreme is for this nation to run a $2 trillion deficit and not have a balanced budget."
Paul predicted Democrat Jack Conway "will have a difficult time trying to run away from President Obama on issues such as health care and cap-and-trade.
"I beg Conway to please, please, please bring Obama with him on the campaign trail," he said.
Both Paul and Conway have much work ahead as they try to woo Democratic voters in the state's rural areas, said political analysts. "Democrats certainly have a lot of ammunition against Paul, and Republicans have much to say against Conway," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based independent, non-partisan newsletter.
Duffy's newsletter called the race a toss-up even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by more than 570,000.
"Democrats feel comfortable they can portray Paul as an extremist, and Republicans feel they can paint Conway as a big liberal," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. He also rates the race a toss-up.
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, has credited support from the Tea Party movement for his overwhelming victory Tuesday over Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Now, the nation will watch closely as he attempts to attract Democrats to the movement's small-government principles.
Paul, who spent much of the day after Tuesday's primary elections giving media interviews, said he was confident his message will resonate throughout Kentucky.
Conway, the state's attorney general, kept a lower profile Wednesday and was not available for an interview. His campaign spokeswoman, Allison Haley, wrote via e-mail Conway was "up early, spent time with (daughter) Eva, made some thank-you calls, strategized with staff and did some media appearances."
At least one major national analyst, Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the race leans Republican. Sabato predicted the fall election in Kentucky "is going to be as dirty as any in the nation this year."
He said Conway has "his work cut out for him" in a state where Republican presidential candidate John McCain got 57 percent of the vote in 2008 over Democrat Barack Obama.
"Our sense is that Paul is the favorite and likely to win the seat, but he's also fully capable of throwing it away with controversial statements and an undisciplined, divisive campaign. We'll see," Sabato said.
Though Democrats are in the majority in the state, Paul noted that Democrats in Eastern and Western Kentucky sided with the more conservative Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo over Conway in Tuesday's Democratic primary election.
"I believe many of them, especially those who support coal, will line up with me," Paul said.
Conway and other Democrats noted Wednesday that both Conway and Mongiardo received more votes than Paul on Tuesday. Mongiardo got 224,989 votes, compared with 206,812 for Paul.
That is meaningless, Paul said, noting Republicans have held the U.S. Senate in Kentucky since 1998 with more Democratic voters than GOP voters.
Meanwhile, Gov. Steve Beshear, who endorsed Mongiardo in the Democratic primary, said Wednesday he did not go to Mongiardo's campaign headquarters Tuesday night to watch the returns because of the late hour. Beshear said he called Mongiardo and Conway after the votes were final.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said once Paul's positions are explained in detail, many people will realize Paul is not good for Kentucky.
"They sound good," Stumbo said. "But once you start analyzing them and taking them apart and listening to what's behind those ideas, it's not good for Kentucky."
For example, Paul argues there should be term limits but Kentucky has benefited from having longtime leaders in Congress, Stumbo said.
Also Wednesday, Mongiardo changed his mind about seeking a recanvass of votes. He finished behind Conway by less than 1 percentage point. "Daniel feels it's time to move forward," his campaign said.