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.
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