Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning issued a surprise endorsement Wednesday of Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul, calling him the one "strong, principled conservative" and best choice to fill the seat Bunning will vacate later this year.
Riding an anti-establishment wave that's swept through other GOP primaries, Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas and a favored candidate of the Tea Party movement, has built double-digit leads in most public polls heading toward the May 18 vote. Paul also has the backing of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Bunning, who last month blocked an extension of federal unemployment benefits, said Kentucky "needs a conservative who will say no to bailouts, stop the government takeover of our economy, end wasteful spending, and bring down our national debt."
"In 2010, there is only one such conservative running for the United States Senate — Dr. Rand Paul," Bunning's statement said.
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The endorsement is the latest public indignity handed to Kentucky Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Bunning loyalist who was once considered the front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination, and perhaps also to Kentucky's senior senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell's often uneasy relationship with Bunning turned frigid last year when he tried to discourage the 78-year-old hall of fame pitcher from seeking a third term.
Bunning also called Paul the candidate most suited among those running in the primary who could stand up to "the liberals and establishment politicians that run Washington."
Bunning's endorsement might not shift many votes, said Scott Lasley, a Republican and political science professor at Western Kentucky University, but it builds on the disparity in momentum for the Paul and Grayson campaigns.
"The Grayson camp has continued to search for solid footing, and it doesn't help move him to that," Lasley said.
Grayson's campaign manager Nate Hodson said Bunning "is flat-out wrong about Rand Paul."
"We've always respected Senator Bunning's fiscally conservative views, but even as a major league pitcher, he'd occasionally misfire," he said.
The communication lines between Paul and Bunning opened over the past two weeks since the two attended a political dinner in southeast Kentucky on March 27.
Paul, in his remarks at the dinner, praised Bunning for his "principled stand" to block the extension of jobless benefits because Democrats wouldn't propose a way to pay for it.
After the dinner, Bunning saw Paul on his way outside and said just two words to him: "We'll talk."
Bunning refused to speak to a reporter at the time, and Paul said he wasn't sure what Bunning meant by the comment.
David Adams, Paul's campaign manager, said Wednesday that Paul and Bunning spoke by phone the following Monday and had several "good conversations" afterward.
Bunning's statement painted Paul as a kindred spirit, who would "be his own man in Washington."
"I know what it takes to stand up for the conservative principles that are needed to make America a better place for our children and grandchildren," Bunning's statement said. "Dr. Paul shares those same core values and has the courage and conviction necessary to make sure the voices of Kentucky's workers, families, retirees, and children are heard in Washington."
Bunning's statement made no reference to Grayson.
Grayson has long considered Bunning a strong backer. In fact, Bunning had encouraged Grayson to form an exploratory committee months before Bunning announced he would retire.
"At the time he never said, 'I'm going to endorse you.' He was just looking out for me," Grayson said in an interview last week.
Grayson's campaign didn't return a call for comment Wednesday.
(Alessi reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)
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