LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Republican Rand Paul tapped into tea party support to rise from obscurity to win election to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, defeating Democrat Jack Conway in a nasty race that drew attention for a skirmish and hard-hitting ads.

Paul, 47, a Bowling Green eye doctor, was an early tea party enthusiast who attracted conservative support for his condemnation of budget deficits, the economic stimulus and the health care overhaul. The first-time candidate often overlooked Conway to turn the race into a midterm review of President Barack Obama.

An Associated Press analysis of exit poll data showed Paul defeating Conway. With 52 percent of precincts reporting, Paul was leading Conway 54 percent to 46 percent.

Preliminary results of the exit poll showed that about 90 percent of voters surveyed were concerned with the direction of the nation's economy.

Paul carried a message of low taxes and less government interference in the private sector as the formula for economic recovery. He railed against the federal debt as a threat for future prosperity.

Paul was a first-time candidate with a strong political pedigree: His father is maverick Texas congressman and unsuccessful 2008 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Conway, 41, the state's attorney general, tried to portray Paul as too extreme and out of touch on such issues as taxes, entitlements and drug prevention.

Outside money poured into the race to replace Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring. Paul was the main beneficiary, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an alliance with ties to one-time President George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove pounded away at Conway as a liberal Obama backer.

The race turned personal when Conway aired a TV ad that asked why Paul was a member in college of a secret campus society that mocked Christians and once allegedly tied up a woman and told her to worship an idol and claimed his god was "Aqua Buddha." Paul angrily called the ad a false attack on his religion.

Tommy Duffy, 58, a sheriff's deputy in Jefferson County, said Tuesday that he considered voting for Conway until the Democrat ran the "Aqua Buddha" ad, which turned him off.

"That was pretty much desperation, a desperate shot," Duffy said. "I didn't like that at all."

In the exit polling, 91 percent of those who voted for Paul said Conway had attacked the Republican unfairly.

Democrats tried to capitalize on a pre-debate scuffle caught on video, which showed a liberal female activist being pulled to the ground and then stepped on by a Paul supporter.

Paul bucked the state's GOP establishment to win the party's nomination in the spring. His libertarian-leaning beliefs caused some post-primary stumbles when Paul questioned some provisions of the Civil Rights Act and criticized Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill as "un-American."

Paul said the health care and financial regulation overhauls would dampen job creation. He tagged the economic stimulus as a costly failure that added more debt.

The anti-government message resonated with people like northern Kentucky voter Marsha Grand.

"Regulating is not the answer to everything," said Grand, 54.

Krista King, 25, a librarian from Lexington, said she voted for Conway because she considered Paul "too extreme."

"I was open to somebody who was, at first, claiming to be an independent candidate, but then he started falling more and more in line with the Republican Party and even to the right of the party," she said.

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Paul's campaign message was a mix of bluntness and finesse.

He talked about possible future changes to Social Security and Medicare as growing numbers of baby boomers retire, but opposed changes for current recipients. He touted a balanced budget amendment and called for a full review of government spending, but was short on specifics on how to balance the budget.

Paul also called for repealing the health care overhaul and denounced Obama's cap-and-trade environmental legislation as harmful to Kentucky coal.

Conway said his opponent's position on taxes and entitlements would inflict economic hardships in a poor state. Conway railed against Paul for openly discussing a $2,000 Medicare deductible and the FairTax, a proposal that includes eliminating the federal income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent national sales tax.