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Voter disenchantment shakes up Republican primaries

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Lexington

Republican primary candidates take part in a televised debate in Lexington
The Republican hopefuls in Kentucky traded insults in a televised debate

Voters are preparing to go to the polls in several US states on Tuesday in a round of primary elections regarded as crucial tests for the future direction of both the Democratic and Republican parties, ahead of Congressional mid-term elections in November.

In the heart of Kentucky's bluegrass country, where white picket fences and rolling pasture speak of the state's equestrian passions, the Republican Party is locked in one such race.

We don't need more career politicians
Mica Simms

"Rand Paul is definitely an anti-establishment candidate," said Tom Siedel, a volunteer at the Kentucky Horse Park, just outside Lexington.

Mr Paul, a Bowling Green opthalmologist, is running an insurgent campaign against Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who enjoys the support of the Republican leadership.

"You get the idea he's going to go into Washington and he'll kick butt," Mr Siedel said of Mr Paul. "He's not going to play politics."

Tea Party

It is an upstart, outsider image that Mr Paul is only too happy to cultivate.

"I upset the apple cart," he told the BBC outside Malone's steakhouse in Lexington.

Rand Paul
Rand Paul has been able to spend liberally on his campaign

"I don't run to become part of the system. I want to help the Republican Party regain its believability as fiscal conservatives."

With his low-tax, small-government, economically libertarian views, Mr Paul has attracted fierce support from the conservative Tea Party movement activists whose disenchantment with Washington has already been felt in several races across the country.

His call for term limits for US senators appeals to Mica Simms, a local organiser in Lexington.

"We don't need more career politicians," she said with passion, adding that they are not what the Founding Fathers intended.

"Politicians are supposed to ride up in their horse and buggy, go serve the country and come home," Ms Simms insisted. "Now they stay up in Washington and they're so disconnected."

Establishment

Mr Paul is leading in the polls. He has been able to spend liberally on his campaign thanks in part to the connections of his father, the Texas congressman and one-time presidential candidate, Ron Paul.

Badge saying: 'I'm a Rand fan'
This is an election in which the Republican Party is figuring out what its future is
Al Cross
University of Kentucky

The enthusiastic endorsement of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the Tea Party's populist heroine, has also helped.

If he wins on Tuesday, it will represent a slap in the face for the Republican leadership, especially Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

Sen McConnell, who also represents Kentucky, hand-picked Trey Grayson for this race.

"This is an election in which the Republican Party is figuring out what its future is," said Al Cross, the professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky.

"Will it go with the establishment that has led it for a long time, or will it strike out in a more conservative, pugnacious, anti-establishment tangent?"

'Populist rhetoric'

In a televised debate in Lexington, the two main candidates traded insults, with Mr Grayson challenging Mr Paul about alleged "flip-flops" on policy and Mr Paul accusing his rival of lying to get elected.

Mr Grayson told me afterwards that voters should not be seduced by his opponent's populist rhetoric.

Trey Grayson (file)
Trey Grayson was hand-picked by the Republican Party leadership

"We've got some serious issues to grapple with," he said. "But the trick is we've got to be solution-oriented."

In truth, he has the look of a candidate who fears that the energy surrounding Mr Paul is going to sweep him away.

Scott Jennings, a high-ranking Kentucky Republican and former White House official during the Bush administration, said the party needed to understand what was going on.

"The… leadership in Washington really does have to pay attention to the activism coming into the party when it comes to fiscal matters," he said.

And if that happens, Mr Siedel, of the Kentucky Horse Park, will be a happy man.

"The spending has gone ridiculous!" he said. "How much more can we spend?"

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