CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. — As Rand Paul lumbers toward an expected win in Kentucky's often nasty Senate race, he embodies the promise and peril of a phenomenon the GOP establishment must accommodate if the party is to govern and campaign effectively from here on.
Paul is almost the perfect tea party flag bearer. The first-time candidate and small-government philosopher is practically tea party royalty since his father is libertarian hero Ron Paul, the Texas congressman.
And no one did more than Rand Paul to make the tea party this year's political sensation. He trounced the Republican establishment's hand-picked candidate in the May primary. Then he withstood a barrage of attack ads, and aired his own, to stay in front of Democrat Jack Conway in virtually all polls.
But if the intense, curly haired ophthalmologist personifies the tea party's dogmatic grit, he also hints at its potential weak spots and looming challenges.
With Conway, the Kentucky attorney general, battling Paul right up to Election Day, some Kentuckians wonder why Paul wasn't able to lock up this contest long ago. After all, he's seeking a Republican-held seat in a Republican-trending year in a reliably Republican state. John McCain beat Barack Obama here by 16 percentage points, and GOP operatives said six weeks ago they hoped to knock out Conway with early attack ads.
GOP Senate nominees in several states that Obama carried, including New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin, appear to have opened comparable or bigger leads in their races, with minimal tea party involvement.
If Paul has set examples for doggedly sticking to small-government principles, he also set some less attractive trends for his fellow tea partiers.
He stumbled early in national media settings, mainly by criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and then sharply limited his interactions with reporters. Untested tea party Republicans in Nevada, Delaware and Alaska later did much the same.
That said, political insiders from both parties expect Paul to win Tuesday and to enter Washington as one of the most closely watched newcomers.
The campaign has deeply frustrated Kentucky Democrats who feel that voters, despite countless TV ads attacking Paul's views, still don't understand how unorthodox he is on issues such as replacing the income tax and other levies with a hefty sales tax.
"This Rand Paul is so far out," said Jerry Cox, a lifelong Democrat who joined about 50 other people when Conway visited Cafe Bonin this week in Campbellsville, in south-central Kentucky.
How Paul and his fellow tea party freshmen behave in Congress, and how the Republican leaders cope with them, will help determine the party's ability to counteract Obama's agenda and to pick a strong presidential nominee for 2012.
Barring an upset on Tuesday, Paul will be at the epicenter. Kentucky's other senator is Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who opposed Paul in the primary and now must bite his lip and try to integrate the Bowling Green upstart and other tea partiers into the GOP caucus.
The freshman tea party class could number half a dozen, enough to bond with their spiritual godfather, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and cause massive headaches for McConnell if he seeks even modest compromises with Democrats.
"The whole center of gravity of the Republican Party is going to shift to the right," said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. "Congress is going to be much more polarized now."
If Republicans take over the House, as many expect, the influx of tea partiers there will make it difficult for GOP leaders to find even the minimal flexibility they will need to reach accords with the White House and Senate. Without that, the party may prove it has muscle but little to show legislatively for a Republican-led House.
"They could be setting Obama up to run against a do-nothing Congress," Abramowitz said.
Meanwhile, he noted, every Republican presidential hopeful will have to cater to tea party champions such as Paul to win the party's primaries. That could complicate efforts to attract centrist voters in the 2012 general election.
Paul pushes libertarian-leaning policies that seldom draw serious debate in Congress. Conway and his allies have repeatedly tried to depict Paul as too conservative even for Kentucky, with little apparent success.
In an 11-minute speech to the gathering in Campbellsville, a rather tired-looking Conway said in frustration that Paul "says all this stuff and then claims he doesn't."
Conway cited Paul's tax proposals. Paul says he wants to eliminate the IRS and income tax and institute the so-called FairTax, a 23 percent sales tax on all new goods and services. Families would get a rebate for taxes on all money spent up to the poverty line.
With Democrats blasting the idea in TV ads, Paul's campaign released a video from February in which he seemed less adamant. In it, Paul says he would prefer no IRS and income tax, adding: "I think a sales tax would be better. But I also will support, if it's an alternative, a lower income tax rate, marginal rates going down."
Paul's campaign centers on tying Conway to Obama. He claims, wrongly, that Conway endorsed Obama in the presidential primary. Paul invoked Obama's name more than 20 times in the candidates' final debate Monday, which was notable mainly for a female liberal activist getting roughed up outside by a Paul supporter, who was banned from future campaign events.
"He's a disaster for our country," Paul said of Obama, glaring at Conway. "He's bankrupting us, and you sit blithely over there and support his policies." A prominent Paul TV ad ends by saying Conway is "another vote for Obama."
The Kentucky campaign's biggest hubbub seems to have had little impact on voters' views. A Conway ad charged that Paul, 47, had belonged to a group in college that mocked the Bible and forced a young woman to "bow down before a false idol" called Aqua Buddha. Paul did not deny the details, but he called the ad absurd and out of bounds, as did some Democrats. Republicans say the ad backfired on Conway.
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Analysts differ on whether Paul and his fellow tea partiers would bend Congress in their direction or become little more than quixotic debaters. Michael Baranowski, a political scientist at Northern Kentucky University, predicts Paul will soften and work with McConnell in the Senate. "He's too far out of the mainstream to get much accomplished unless he's willing to compromise," Baranowski said.
Emory's Abramowitz has his doubts. He said McConnell and GOP House leaders will feel heavy pressure to show fierce resistance to Obama and Democratic lawmakers.
The tea party has captured a significant portion of the Republican base, Abramowitz said, and "I don't think these people are going away."