Conway's Choice: Rand Paul Is Kooky or Extreme

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Yes, Rand Paul is very different than your mainstream political candidate. That's why he's in line to be the next senator from Kentucky. What better way to send a message to Washington than to send a guy who hates Washington to Washington?

But why is Democrat Jack Conway,  the state's attorney general, in that same line? Is it because Paul is kooky? Or because voters suspect his ideology? A late September CNN poll offers some clues. Conway is holding his own among white voters without college degrees, although Paul leads Conway narrowly among all white voters. Conway is winning among voters ages 50 to 64 -- those who are expecting to get Social Security and Medicare benefits -- among moderates, and among low-wage earners.

It's that first category that's so important. They are sensitive to both government spending AND to charges that Republicans will take away their social safety net. They don't like deficits, and they don't want less from the government. The more downscale they tend to be, the better Conway does with them. He has been able to hover well above President Obama's approval rating in the state, having differentiated himself quite early.

This is anecdotal evidence that Conway's progress is among voters who worry that Paul is too extreme for the state. Generally, Republican Senate candidates get more than 75 percent of self-identified conservatives. Paul's getting 68 percent. These voters might think he's too kooky.

And it's these voters whom Conway is trying to target with his claims that Paul once participated in anti-Christian activities. But Paul's kookiness doesn't track with his somehow being anti-Christian. He's pro-life, opposes gay marriages, and has all the social conservative boxes checked. And when a candidate goes off on a "How DARE you question my faith" broadside, one with bravura and feeling, it almost almost forces his opponent into a defensive crouch.

So here's the Democratic dilemma over the next two weeks in Kentucky: try to convince undecideds or persuadables that Paul is kooky and risk a backlash? Or try to convince them that he's ideologically incompatible with Kentucky? Doing that risks solidifying Paul's support among conservatives.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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