United behind Paul, Ky. Republicans downplay his comments

05/22/2010 03:17 PM

FRANKFORT — Republican leaders, starting with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, offered a united front on Saturday in supporting Senate candidate Rand Paul and in ignoring the flap over Paul’s recent comments in the national media.

Several hundred Republicans spilled out of the state Republican headquarters to hear McConnell and Paul speak, as well as three of Kentucky’s four U.S. congressmen: Reps. Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green, Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville and Hal Rogers of Somerset. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Hebron, had a family event and didn’t attend. And neither did U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, whose retirement has opened the seat.

None of the speakers referenced Paul’s recent comments to national cable news outlets that have caused a stir. And McConnell and Paul declined to take questions from the press. After the two men met privately with other GOP leaders inside the headquarters, Paul emerged to shake a few hands of supporters but quickly retreated into the building without answering reporters’ questions. While that was going on, McConnell slipped out the side door and into his waiting SUV without taking talking either.

In his speech to the party faithful, McConnell railed against President Barack Obama and the Democrats, whom he says have turned Washington into the “one boon town” in the country by creating government jobs while the private sector has shrunk amid the recession.

“These people need to be stopped,” McConnell said, putting emphasis on each word. “We have a chance to have a great election this fall. But let me suggest to you it is too early to spiking the ball in the end zone. There’s a long way to November.”

And McConnell and Rogers, who backed Trey Grayson against Paul in the primary, both urged Republicans to get behind Paul, the Bowling Green eye surgeon making his first run for office. McConnell, particularly, praised Paul’s primary campaign.

“I’ve watched a lot of campaigns over the years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a sharper campaign in a primary than the one we’ve just witnessed in the last year,” McConnell said. “For all of you who were deeply involved and invested in that, you deserve a big smile on your face and a pat of congratulations, but the only way you make public policy in this country is to win general elections.”

Rand Paul shakes hands outside GOP headquarters

“And that’s why we’re here today: to send a clear and unmistakable message to every Republican in Kentucky that we’re going to elect Dr. Rand Paul to the United States Senate,” McConnell said. The crowd inside the headquarters’ main room erupted.

His comments seemed to placate Paul supporters who criticized McConnell for what they thought was McConnell trying to ordain a GOP candidate in Grayson.

“I’m pleased. I’m very pleased,” said Jack Richardson IV, a Jefferson County Republican who slammed McConnell in an interview Tuesday.  “The Republicans leaders now have given us our marching orders.”

McConnell noted that unifying Republicans only was the first step because Democrats still outnumber registered Republicans 1.6 million to 1 million.

McConnell then introduced Paul, who spoke for about three minutes. He stuck to the script, listing the major tenets of his campaign: reducing the debt, shrinking government and promoting personal freedom.

“I will call for something in the fall that I’ve called for all throughout the last year. I will call for one simple thing: let’s not spend more money than we take in,” Paul said, prompting strong cheers.

But instead of lobbing attacks at the Democrats — and without even mentioning his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway — Paul took a hopeful tone to end his speech.

“I believe America has greatness left. I am an optimist,” he said. “I see greatness in our way of life. Our way of life is freedom — economic freedom, personal freedom. There is greatness in America. But let the greatness not dim by an overreaching, overarching government. Let us limit government.”

Paul and Grayson also shook hands for the first time since Tuesday night’s primary results.

“I compliment Trey Grayson on his hard-fought primary battle,” Paul said to start his speech — a comment he failed to make during his victory speech Tuesday night.

Grayson, as he did in his election night speech, pledged to work for Paul.

In an interview after the rally, Grayson declined to weigh in on the controversy sparked last week after MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow challenged Paul over his questioning of a provision in the Civil Rights Act that barred private businesses from discriminating against customers based on the color of their skin. Paul said he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act but that he was uncomforatable with government telling private businesses what to do.

“Today we’re talking about unity, and I’m going to stand by what I said in my speech today,” Grayson said, when asked about it. “Today is all about unity and policy, and I don’t want to talk about the last couple days.

Grayson said he spoke with by phone to Paul on Thursday. Among other things, they joked “about the media” — and specifically about Maddow, Grayson said. He didn’t share the joke was.

Across Capitol Avenue, more than two dozen protesters waved signs criticizing Paul for his comments.

Guthrie, the Republican congressman from Bowling Green, said he saw the interview between Paul and Maddow live and that Paul’s answer has been distorted.

“He said in that interview he abhors racism, which I do, which we all do,” he said. “The radical Republicans were the ones who were trying to bring equal rights to African Americans throughout the country.”

Guthrie said Paul “probably should have rested” after Tuesday’s victory before hitting the national cable circuit so aggressively.

“I think he should have taken some time,” he said.

- Ryan Alessi

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