Tonight's bluegrass Republican showdown might be closer than you think 

It's being billed as a key test of the Tea Party movement's insurrection against the GOP Establishment. And, the principals couldn't be more colorfully cast. Today Kentucky U.S. Senate Republican primary pits Rand Paul, son and political acolyte of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the "libertarian-ish" surprise sensation of Election 2008, against the Secretary of the Bluegrass State, Trey Grayson, dutiful Kentucky Grand Old Party stalwart, with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his corner. Grayson may have stumbled as a candidate, and polls show him trailing Paul by double digits, but it would be foolish to rule out McConnell pulling his candidate out of the fire. McConnell may be ill at ease stoking the passions of a cantankerous crowd, but he is a masterful behind the scenes political tactician, who knows how to leverage the intricate rules of the game to his advantage.

It was Rand Paul's fundraising prowess that made election observers, who had dismissed his bid as a lark, to start to think he had a shot. Rand Paul reaped thousands of small donations quickly by appealing to the huge email list that Ron Paul had amassed on his quixotic presidential run. The bulk of those donors came from outside Kentucky. But in contrast to Ron's run that rented out huge halls for Dr. Paul to hold forth to the faithful - many of whom couldn't vote for him, Rand Paul's operatives assured this blogger that his funds would be spent for the "stuff" of a modern U.S. Senate campaign: targeting voters, winning them over and getting them to the polls.

Regular Republicans revere McConnell for building the Kentucky Republican Party into the force to be reckoned with that it is today. While never endangered with extinction as Deep South Republican parties were for most of the 20th Century, the GOP is in this Border South Commonwealth was the perennial underdog, in the shadow of the dominant Democrats. Telling of the challenge that McConnell faced, TV ads in his first bid for the Senate implored Kentuckians to "Switch to Mitch." Enough did to send Mitch to Washington, with only 49% during the Ronald Reagan's landslide.

Kentucky's historic Republican base has been in the impoverished Appalachian counties of Eastern Kentucky. This hardscrabble corner of the state's Republicanism has its roots in Unionist sympathies during the Civil War. Though devoutly religious, culturally conservative, reverent of the U.S. military and fervently patriotic, Eastern Kentucky never bought into the GOP's small government, anti-spending agenda. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers has ruled the roost here since 1980, assiduously steering federal dollars to Eastern Kentucky from his perch on the House Appropriations Committee. Polls show spending-cutting Rand Paul's support is weak in this region.

Kentucky is made up of a whopping 120 counties. The sheer number of those counties and the Commonwealth's large swathes of tough-to-travel mountainous Appalachia make Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts even more of a challenge. With the poverty endemic to this region and the elderly skew to their populations, traditional routes of campaigning are the only option. New media efforts may pay dividends in fast-growing Oldham County, and other Louisville-centric areas rich in potential Republican primary voters, but not many folks tweet from the Hills & the Hollers.

In those lopsidedly Republican, federal dollar-dependent counties, Rogers' and McConnells' men at the county courthouse know who to turn to and how to turn them out for their man. They aren't hesitant to remind those loyal Republicans that of Rand Paul's schemes for eliminating many of those programs that keep their communities afloat.

Finally - and potentially crucially - Kentucky's is a closed primary. Only registered Republican voters may participate, and the deadline for registering was well before Rand Paul's surge. If Tea Party protests and Ron Paul 2008 rallies offer any historical foreshadowing, the adulating crowds that greet - or follow - Rand Paul across the Commonwealth may be larded with out-of-state activists, registered independents and political neophytes who may not even be registered to vote in the Bluegrass State who outnumber real registered Kentucky Republicans.

Scott Jennings, generically billed as a Kentucky "Republican strategist," offered a Louisville TV news blog this wise reminder given the landscape sketched above:

"I think Paul is likely to slightly underperform the polling," Jennings continued, "And I think Grayson because he's appeared on the ballot twice statewide may overperform the polling a bit."

Even if Rand Paul upends McConnell's Kentucky Republican establishment, there's strong evidence that the final numbers will be closer than the polls are telling us.

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