The Corner

A GOP Battle in the Bluegrass State

Gurley Martin, an octogenarian and self-professed Taft-Goldwater Republican, seemed just a tad out of place last night during Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary debate in Lexington. From fondly recalling a legal hanging to muttering incoherent asides under his breath, he made the race’s top dogs, eye surgeon Rand Paul (son of Ron) and Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, squirm. But Martin was spot on with at least one observation during the middle of the debate when Paul and Grayson were tearing into each other with finger-wagging bromides. Martin, raising an eyebrow at the mud match, said the pair was “destroying each other and I’m proud of ’em.” While Paul and Grayson did not destroy each other last night — the fireworks were actually quite useful in getting to the heart of a couple issues — they did draw a major line between their two camps. On one side, you have Grayson, a state official focusing on national-security concerns. On the other you have Paul, a Constitution-quoting, anti-Washington darling of the tea party.

In a broad tea party versus establishment-sense, this race is a microcosm of what’s happening in GOP primaries across the country. Paul has the backing of Jim DeMint, Sarah Palin, James Dobson, and Jim Bunning. Grayson is supported by Dick Cheney, Mitch McConnell, Rep. Hal Rogers (R., Ky.), and Rudy Giuliani. Paul pledges to never secure an earmark. Grayson wants earmark reform, but believes in the “power of the purse.” Paul says he won’t vote for any budget that’s not balanced. Grayson says that’s a bit extreme. Grayson supports the Patriot Act and a tough line on Iran. Paul says Congress needs to be more careful about individual liberty and going to war. Grayson would “proudly” vote McConnell for Senate leader. Paul offers no guarantee. Both dislike the bank bailouts:

Grayson was tough all night. He came prepared and was articulate in expressing his views. Yet his arguments against Paul rarely seemed to stick. Paul, when confronted by Grayson on everything from Iran to abortion, was pushed back on his heels, but never got knocked. Paul, ahead in the polls by double digits, was also able to casually brush off Grayson’s questions about past statements as “intellectually dishonest” attacks. Paul’s disregard for Grayson’s citations clearly irked the secretary of state.  “It’s on YouTube, Rand,” he said during their mini-debate over Gitmo (Paul’s take here, Grayson’s take here). “Can’t you just quiet up a bit?” Paul retorted. Such testy, personal exchanges were common: Grayson accused Paul of wanting to help his “dad’s supporters” over Kentucky. Paul said Grayson offended his children by tagging the ophthalmologist as a supporter of abortion rights — those are “shameful, gutter attacks,” Paul said. “You know it’s a lie . . . you desperately need this job so bad you lie to get it.”

In my discussion about the debate with Will Cain, I say Paul ultimately won because he was able to use the debate to bolster his tea-party bona fides while Grayson, though smooth in his presentation, stumbled while trying to trip up Paul. In a year where voters are fed up with Washington, Paul’s laser-like focus on entitlement reform, spending, and the deficit may be the winning message. Grayson is betting that voters will want a strong voice on national security that’s willing to ladle some federal money to the cash-strapped state.

Come May 18, how the Grayson-Paul battle ends will be closely watched by Republicans nationwide. Will another GOP establishment favorite fall? Grayson, for now, is staying mum on the subject. Early last night, the moderator from Kentucky public television noted that the race has garnered national attention, just like in Florida, “where you had Rubio and Crist,” and in Arizona, “with McCain and Hayworth.” Grayson kept his hands folded and mouth tight, but I’m sure he didn’t like the comparisons.

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