Former presidential candidate Ron Paul's son is borrowing a page from his father's playbook for his U.S. Senate bid, leaning heavily on Internet fundraising and tapping the enthusiasm of young Republicans on college campuses.
The difference this time is that it could actually work. Eye surgeon Rand Paul, once ignored as a longshot, raised more than his main 2010 GOP primary opponent in the most recent fundraising period, and experts say he has a legitimate shot at winning the Senate seat being vacated by colorful Republican Jim Bunning.
"On some levels, it's more than a grass roots campaign," said Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley. "It's a guerrilla campaign. It's not the easiest to compete against."
Paul is doing traditional outreach through direct mail and the mainstream media, but also using Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to get his message out. Though similar nontraditional strategies did not sweep Ron Paul into the White House, they could work on a smaller scale.
"The momentum is there now," said Rand Paul, 46, who is painting his candidacy as a way for people who feel disenfranchised to take back their government. "I don't think we can stop it."
Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican congressman from Texas, abandoned his 2008 White House bid long before Election Day. He did not win any primaries, but developed a strong following on the Internet and set a single-day record for raising money online.
Since entering the race in August, his son has banked more than $1.3 million. His chief GOP opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, collected $1.2 million between May and October, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Paul's fundraising prowess will help him generate the name recognition he needs to win, said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who served as a special assistant to former President George W. Bush and campaign adviser for Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's successful re-election bid last year. Rand Paul has lived in Kentucky for 18 years, but has never run for office.
"The resources he's brought to the table makes him competitive," Jennings said.
The eventual Republican nominee will likely face one of two well-funded Democrats, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo or Attorney General Jack Conway.
Although Kentucky is solidly Democratic by voter registration, it tends to vote Republican in federal races, meaning the party nominee will likely be the favorite heading into the general election. The GOP holds both Senate seats and four of six House seats, and in last year's presidential election Republican John McCain won the state with 57 percent of the vote compared with 41 percent for Democrat Barack Obama.
Voters say it's too early to make up their minds. June Rice, a retired teacher and lifelong Republican, said activists know and like Grayson after his two terms as secretary of state, but would likely be open to a political outsider like Paul.
"I do think he's a fine young man," she said.
Republican leaders, including McConnell, have been largely mum about the race. McConnell did host a GOP fundraiser in Washington for Grayson in September. More than 20 Republican senators attended, but the campaign hasn't released the fundraising total.
Bunning, who was urged to retire by GOP leaders after two terms, also hasn't weighed in publicly on the Republican candidates. The 78-year-old sports icon enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame was widely seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans heading into next year's elections.
Since Bunning bowed out, Paul's detractors have tried to paint him as an oddball and an extremist, but growing crowds are flocking to town hall meetings across Kentucky to hear his spiel about reining in government spending, stopping taxpayer bailouts of private companies and balancing the federal budget.
Attendance was sparse at some early rallies, but more than 300 people showed up at a Louisville high school Saturday.
Along with college and university students, Paul is courting the libertarian-leaning Republicans who got excited about his father. But to win a Kentucky primary, he'll need social conservatives, and University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss said he must be careful as he tries to appeal to both.
"This is a difficult tightrope to walk," said Voss, who nonetheless believes Paul may be the front-runner right now. "When he's talking economics and money, he is philosophically a libertarian. When he talks about social issues, he's sending guarantees to the right wing that he's not libertarian."
Paul says he opposes abortion without exception, not even in cases of rape, incest or the health of the expectant mother. He also opposes marriages between gay and lesbian couples. At the same time, he voices staunch opposition to government intruding in the private lives of citizens.
"It's an honest position," Paul said. "And I think there's a hunger out there for genuineness."
So far, Grayson has taken a hands-off approach toward Paul, essentially hoping for missteps that would cause the ophthalmologist's momentum to wane.
"If I were advising Grayson, so far I would advise him to do what he's doing," Voss said. "Paul is not a seasoned campaigner. He stands the chance to self-destruct."