A tea party success story in search of a statewide triumph, Kentucky Republican senatorial candidate Rand Paul volunteers that he's spent two decades "popping off" about one issue or another. Not quite so much now, though.
The candidate who strongly criticized federal subsidies for agriculture isn't quite as dug in these days. Running in a state with 85,000 farms, he now says merely that Department of Agriculture funds may need to be cut in the interests of deficit reduction.
After saying provocatively that he might not support Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell for Republican leader, Paul now proclaims himself a big fan of the man who is a living embodiment of the party establishment.
And in a recent interview, Paul said veterans benefits should be scrutinized for possible cuts, then added quickly, "I don't want you saying I'm for getting rid of veterans benefits because I'm not." He added he didn't want people to go "completely crazy" over the issue, in a state that's home to the Army's 101st Airborne Division.
Not everything has changed since May when Paul crushed McConnell's hand-picked candidate, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to win the Republican nomination.
Several public and private polls make him the favorite in a race with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, although by a smaller margin than several weeks ago. And the 47-year-old eye surgeon and first-time candidate still acts like anything but a conventional politician.
At a recent joint appearance before the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, Paul walked in quietly, barely pausing to acknowledge his hosts seated around a horseshoe-shaped table. Conway followed a few moments later, smiling, shaking hands and making small talk as he made his way to his seat.
As attorney general, Conway, 41, already has one statewide election to his credit. This time, even Democrats acknowledge the Senate campaign is less a choice between two candidates than a referendum on Paul — a man with libertarian views on some issues, a conservative outlook on others and an opinion that seems in motion on still others.
Abortion is one example. He calls himself 100 percent "pro-life," but said last February that "in cases of rape, trying to prevent pregnancies is obviously the best thing. The morning-after pill works successfully most of the time."
If a modest sail-trimming is in Paul's self-interest, Conway is running as a moderate Democrat who rarely misses a chance to depict his rival as an extremist.
He tells the farmers he isn't interested in a "risky scheme" on farm programs, a slap at Paul. And in an interview later, he goes further. "People are concerned, one, about jobs, and two, about spending. ... Any time people are nervous or fearful, there's always a demagogue anxious to play to their fears rather than their futures."
Paul has a ready answer, linking Conway to President Barack Obama, whose approval in the state polls is below 40 percent, and to a legislative agenda that includes a tax on carbon products, coal included.
Paul also seems bemused by the attacks.
"People are always calling me names. I don't know to what value. ... People know that I'm worried about the debt and I'm serious about it. I think that alone is enough to propel me to victory," he said.
Voters such as Frieda Heath from Graves County in western Kentucky will determine if Paul's judgment is correct. She says she is a registered Democrat who votes Republican about 99 percent of the time. A member of the Farm Bureau's board of directors, she and her husband have benefited from government payment programs.
"As a farmer, I couldn't say, `No, it's not a cause for concern,'" she said of Paul's criticism of the government subsidizing farmers. "But I know just as someone else is concerned (about a different federal program), we're going to have to give up some things."
In addition to farms, Kentucky has coal mines that employ 18,000 miners whose safety is a federal concern. Fort Campbell's troops have deployed regularly to Iraq and Afghanistan. Unemployment runs nearly 10 percent, and an estimated 17 percent of the state's residents live in poverty, more than all but four other states, according to U.S. census data.
Voter anxiety over lost federal aid mattered little if at all in the primary. Yet from the beginning, McConnell told associates he feared the libertarian-leaning Paul could not win a statewide election in the fall. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans, they last won a Senate race nearly two decades ago. Republican Jim Bunning, who has held the seat for two terms, is retiring.
"From Day One, we had a national race with a national movement. We recognized that. Our primary opponent did not," says David Adams, a top aide during the primary who was forced out of Paul's inner circle shortly afterward.
Within a few days of winning the nomination, Paul stirred his biggest controversy by questioning the wisdom of the federal government enforcing racial desegregation in private businesses.
"I think he's said quite enough for the time being in terms of national press coverage," remarked McConnell.
In the weeks since, Paul's campaign has grown closer to McConnell's operation and to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He traveled to Washington to attend a fundraiser with senators who had voted for the 2008 Wall Street bailout, even though he had previously said he would not take their cash.
Republicans familiar with the race say Paul privately acknowledges his remarks on civil rights were a political error, and describe him as receptive to their advice to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that might appeal to his core supporters but scare off many other voters.
Nowhere is the post-primary straddle more noticeable than on federal budget-cutting.
In an interview, Paul said that if elected, he will quickly propose balancing the budget in a single year without raising taxes. It's a sweeping pledge, considering the government is projected to spend about $3.8 trillion in the next budget year, with a deficit of about $1.4 trillion. The result would be a cut of about 37 cents out of every dollar on programs as diverse as defense, the Pentagon, Social Security, farm payments and more.
It's the type of rhetoric that made him a tea party favorite.
Yet moments later, the hedging begins.
Paul favors eliminating the Department of Education. But when asked about its funding, he recommends, "send it back to the states," leaving unclear how that would reduce federal deficits.
Asked about Title I, the government program to help local school districts educate disadvantaged children, he said, "That might be a federal function," suggesting it remain in place.
Asked to clarify, he said, "I've never thought about it. I don't know my position on that."
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