WASHINGTON — In public, Senate candidate Rand Paul's Republican colleagues have tried to contextualize his controversial comments about anti-discrimination laws and the Obama administration's handling of the Gulf Coast oil spill, but privately they bemoan the political newcomer's gaffes and wish he'd focus less on the national media spotlight and more on Kentucky and the economy.
"In any campaign there's going to be a few bumps," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Paul didn't return calls requesting comment.
In an indication that he was heeding advice to limit his national exposure, Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press," Tweeted late Friday afternoon that Paul said he was having "a tough week" and was trying to cancel his scheduled appearance on the show this Sunday. According to Fischer, such cancellations are rare, and only Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia have ever nixed planned appearances.
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Paul's problems began in an interview Wednesday night on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" in which he told the liberal host that, based on his belief in limited government, private businesses shouldn't be forced to abide by civil rights laws. After the uproar Thursday, Paul issued a statement saying that he abhors discrimination, backs the 1964 Civil Rights Act and wouldn't support its repeal.
In an appearance Friday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America," Paul called President Barack Obama's handling of the oil spill anti-business and "really un-American," and said of the oil spill, which killed 11 people, and a mining accident last month in Kentucky that killed two miners, "Maybe sometimes accidents happen."
On the eve of a post-election Republican "unity" rally in the state, Kentucky politicos are watching anxiously to see what, if anything, Paul's handling of this very early campaign crisis says about his performance in the general election.
Meanwhile, Democratic operatives are gleefully disseminating any and all news of Paul's gaffes and are poised to expand those missteps into questions about his philosophy on a variety of other topics where individual rights clash with government regulation as they try to paint him as an extremist.
"He needs to understand that for Republican officials who want to be unified and get behind him, it's going to be hard to do that if he keeps having cringe-worthy moments," said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican political strategist and former George W. Bush administration official.
It was a short honeymoon for Paul, a tea party-backed eye surgeon from Bowling Green whose anti-Washington establishment campaign nabbed national attention as a symbol of grass-roots insurgency and a foreshadowing of things to come in November's congressional elections.
However, shortly after winning a GOP primary against Kentucky's secretary of state, Trey Grayson, who was backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Paul's controversial comments have roiled his fledgling general election campaign.
Paul is facing a firestorm of criticism by the very national media that just a few short days ago rushed to book him for appearances. He and his supporters blamed the Democrats for painting comments as incendiary and the mainstream media for fanning the flames.
Democrats say they have no need to twist Paul's words — he does a fine job of that himself.
Political analysts say it's too early to tell exactly how Paul's statements and libertarian, limited-government philosophy will affect the outcome of November's general election. But one thing is certain: The more Paul talks about topics other than the economy and the national deficit, the more fodder he provides for Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, his Democratic opponent in the fall.
Conway's camp wouldn't say Friday how it planned to use some of Paul's beliefs or stances in its campaign. However, campaign manager Jonathan Drobis sent a letter to supporters Friday afternoon saying, "You and I both know Rand Paul is out of touch with most Kentuckians. His worldview is so narrow and outside of the mainstream, he opposes even the most fundamental protections for citizens. As Jack said — it's up to us to stop him."
Political analysts say Conway will have to poke truck-sized holes in Paul's conservative armor to win in a state that voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008 and where Obama remains unpopular.
"Rand Paul has to be the issue," said Danny Briscoe, a former Kentucky Democratic Party chair and a campaign consultant. "Conway has to show that these beliefs are emblematic of a group of ideas that could be dangerous to the people of Kentucky."
(Musgrave, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Frankfort, Ky.)
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