Three months until Kentucky voters decide who will succeed Jim Bunning in the U.S. Senate, first time candidate Rand Paul still has the edge. That's according to a new WHAS11/Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll.
If the election were held today, this poll says Republican Rand Paul would defeat Democrat Jack Conway by eight points. Conway says he does not believe the numbers.
"They do not comport with what we have," Conway said, "We've got a poll taken a few weeks ago that had the race literally a dead heat."
"I would say an eight point lead in Kentucky for a Republican is a pretty good lead," Paul said, "We're pretty excited about it."
"We think that the Kentucky voters are concerned like I am about the debt, about overspending, about the federal government and that we really can't borrow our way into prosperity," Paul continued.
Conway contends that the WHAS11/Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll is an "outlier" and that the poll also "never had me ahead in a race that I won in the Spring."
"What's at stake in this election is the difference between a U.S. Senator who holds people accountable, who holds Wall Street accountable, who holds Washington accountable and someone whose ideology quite frankly in my opinion is too risky for the Commonwealth of Kentucky at this time," Conway said.
While Conway calls Paul "risky," Republican primary rival Trey Grayson said Paul had "crazy" ideas. But the primary didn't bruise Paul. Republicans back him 85 percent to 11 percent.
The wounds of Conway's Democratic primary battle with Daniel Mongiardo are taking longer to heal. Mongiardo has yet to endorse Conway. Factor in Democrats who routinely cross the party line and Conway has only 69 percent support of his fellow Democrats. 25 percent of Democrats support Paul.
And by a 3-2 ratio, independents are backing the Republican.
"I think that conservative Democrats and independents are the key to the race," Paul said, "but I think they're also concerned like many of us are about the debt and about overspending. So I think they do come our way."
"I think they also want someone like myself who's an outsider. Who's not a politician," Paul continued, "(I've) never run for office before, never held office. I think people are looking for a new perspective, someone who would go to Washington and fix the mess."
Hammering what appears to be a message people want to hear, Paul has become the voice and face of the Tea Party movement. Kentucky voters with a favorable view of the Tea Party favor Paul nearly 9 to 1.
"I'm not turned off by the Tea Party," countered Conway, "I think the Tea Party is expressing on behalf of a lot of people that they are very concerned about spending, and i understand that. I'm a fiscally responsible Democrat."
Conway says Paul is full of Tea Party platitudes -- but that he, Conway, offers specifics that address Tea Party concerns.
"It's a lot more concrete than just saying you're going to balance the budget next year," Conway said, "So, the Tea Party is expressing concerns about spending. I understand that spending. I plan to attack that problem in a responsible way when I'm elected to the United States Senate."
What Conway insiders are stressing is what they learned in the Democratic primary -- that it's less about where they are three months from election day -- but where they're headed. They say Paul had a 20 point advantage in name identification to start the general election campaign and the race is now within the margin of error. Conway contends that the more voters hear about Paul, the less they support him.
What Republican strategists say is that Paul is in the catbird seat because he is on the right side of the issues in a political climate that is very adverse for the Democratic agenda. They say as long as Paul stays on the message of less government and spending, this is his race to lose.
An analysis of the numbers by the pollster, Survey USA, suggests that "Conway may have made up some ground in Western Kentucky, but lost some ground in Eastern Kentucky."
Eastern Kentucky voters:
Western Kentucky voters:
Paul claims a narrow lead, 50 percent to 45 percent in Conway's home region, in Louisville and 14 surrounding counties. The only region Conway leads is in Eastern Kentucky, where the race is a virtual dead heat with Conway at 48 percent and Paul at 47 percent.
Louisville Region voters:
North Central KY voters
Though the senate race is unusual in the amount of national attention it has received, largely due to Paul's prominence in accepting the mantle as a Tea Party leader, both campaigns have adopted a common strategy of moving to the center for the general election.
Though Democrats hold a 2-1 lead in party registration in Kentucky, voters in federal races have backed Republican candidates in recent years, with both of Kentucky's U.S. Senators and four of six House Representatives, Republican.
For Conway - who was identified as the more liberal candidate in the Democratic primary - it means stressing more conservative themes and positions. At a candidate forum before the Kentucky Farm Bureau Board in mid-July, Conway insisted he is against "Cap and Trade" legislation, lashed out at the U.S. government for abrogating its responsibility on immigration, favors extending Bush administration tax cuts, and said there is "not much daylight" between he and Paul on free trade.
For Paul, it means both embracing the Republican establishment that he challenged in the primary, and backing off what might be considered some extreme positions, particularly the existence of a number of federal agencies and programs. In rural Kentucky, Paul's criticism of Agriculture Department subsidies is considered a political liability. What remains to be seen is if voters perceive Paul as ideologically rigid or appreciate his consistency on positions that are politically dangerous.
Paul will work to stress the positions that he says are the core of his campaign.
"I think they are very mainstream," Paul said, "A balanced budget amendment. In Kentucky we have to balance our budget by law. I think it should be that way in Washington too. I think we should have term limits. They all go and stay too long."
Both candidates have been relatively out of the public eye for the last couple of months. Saturday, August 7 is the Fancy Farm picnic in Graves County, Kentucky, the traditional start of the campaign season.