CORBIN — Republican Rand Paul took his pitch for cutting federal spending to an impoverished region of Kentucky that has come to depend on congressional money to pay for a variety of initiatives, including fighting drugs, cleaning up the environment, building highways and distributing clean drinking water to remote communities.
Paul, the front-runner in the race for U.S. Senate, said he refused to alter his message about the evils of budgetary earmarks when he spoke Saturday to about 400 county-level GOP leaders from across southern and Eastern Kentucky at a dinner in Corbin.
"I give the same message in every county after every county," said Paul, who faces Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson and three other Republican candidates seeking to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning. Bunning, a 79-year-old member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, opted not to seek a third term.
GOP leaders inducted Bunning on Saturday into the regional Republican Hall of Fame, praising him for his recent stand against a $10 billion spending bill that included money for an extension of federal jobless benefits. Bunning was ridiculed for taking that stand.
"I stood for what I believed in, even when I was alone," Bunning told the crowd, which responded with a standing ovation.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, called on the Republican crowd to send him a Republican replacement for Bunning to help repeal the monstrosity of health care reform "halfway through what I hope will be this president's only term."
A Bowling Green eye surgeon, Paul criticized Washington insiders for "selling their souls" to get federal funds for pet projects.
It was a daring speech in a region represented by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, the Republican congressman who uses his seat on the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee to funnel federal funding into the state's Appalachian region, often through earmarks.
Rogers, who has served in Congress since 1981, is a revered political figure in the region. Streets and buildings have been named in his honor. And a former governor even changed the name of the Daniel Boone Parkway to the Hal Rogers Parkway without political backlash.
Winning the favor of Rogers in this swath of Kentucky has traditionally translated into votes. Rogers, however, has remained neutral in the primary race, calling Saturday for Republicans to unite behind whoever is selected as the nominee in the May 18 primary.
"It's very important that we elect a successor to Jim Bunning, a Republican successor," Rogers said.
In his speech, Grayson criticized Paul on national security issues. Grayson repeated a claim he has made in television ads in which he accuses Paul of wanting to release suspected terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay. Paul has repeatedly denied that claim, accusing Grayson of being "intellectually dishonest."
Paul said he wants Guantanamo to remain open and he wants the prisoners held there to stand trial before military tribunals, not in U.S. civilian courts.
University of Louisville political scientist Laurie Rhodebeck acknowledged the heavily Republican pocket of southern and eastern Kentucky will be important to both Paul and Grayson in the May 18 primary election.
"It's not like it's home turf for either one of them," Rhodebeck said. "I can't imagine that Rand Paul's standard campaign message is going to play well there. But I'm not sure Grayson is quite their cup of tea, either."
The race has attracted interest from big-name Republicans. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has endorsed Paul, and former Vice President Dick Cheney has endorsed Grayson.