Looking for an opening a week before the Kentucky Senate Republican primary, Trey Grayson used the final debate Monday night to hammer Rand Paul as weak on national security and unreliable on cultural issues.
Grayson, who is trailing in the polls, was on the offensive for much of the hour-long session, saying Paul didn't believe a nuclear-armed Iran was a threat to America, once backed closing the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and was insufficiently opposed to abortion.
Paul shot back by accusing Grayson of distorting his views and running a dishonest, failing campaign.
But the more fundamental disagreement on display throughout the forum, which aired statewide on Kentucky public television, was an extension of the central dispute that has defined the closely-watched contest and is dividing establishment and insurgent Republicans nationally: should the party hew to a purist line on fiscal issues, slashing spending and reducing the role of Washington, even if that means taking political risks that may be unpopular with the general electorate?
The Kentucky race provides perhaps the best test case for the debate. A poor state, it has long relied upon its congressional delegation to secure federal dollars. Moreover, it has rewarded members of both parties for doing so -- returning its elected officials to Washington to gain more seniority and therefore more clout when it comes to steering spending back to the state.
But, with Democrats in the White House and controlling both chambers of Congress, the GOP's conservative base in Kentucky has become enraged over increased government spending and bailouts.
Paul, a Bowling Green ophthalmologist and son of libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), has tapped into this grassroots anger on the right and become both a favorite of his state's tea party movement and the favorite to win the primary.
But Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state and the favorite of the state's political establishment, is testing just how far the anti-Washington fervor will go in the Bluegrass State.
On Monday, he placed the dispute in vivid terms by bringing up a popular earmark secured by veteran Rep. Hal Rogers, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and political power in impoverished eastern Kentucky, to assist with the drug scourge in Appalachia.
"When we tighten our belt doesn't mean we should throw out all those kind of earmarks," Grayson said in defending the dollars directed toward a program called "Unite."
Paul retorted that Grayson was promoting "the Democrat mantra -- let's throw money at the problem."
He advocated "more local solutions and less of Washington telling us what to do."
At this Grayson interjected that the program is administered locally -- and used the moment to say the disagreement illustrated their more fundamental differences.
"Rand doesn't want to go to Washington to fight for our priorities -- he doesn't know the priorities of our state," Grayson said, calling it "embarrassing" that Paul didn't know about the program.
But Paul was unapologetic about his stance toward the role of the federal government.
"I am philosophically opposed to earmarks," he said, calling them a symbol of what has gone wrong in the capital.
And he was even bolder about making clear his disregard for the way that the likes of Rogers and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have both endorsed Grayson, have helped the state and their own political careers.
Paul singled out Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) not Kentucky's senior politicians, but nevertheless said flatly that spending shouldn't be based upon "how long can someone grow old in office."
"Let's base the decisions on objective facts on which projects need to be built and not base it on the seniority of the senators and the congressman," Paul said.
The two also disagreed when it came to the federal government's involvement in education.
Paul called for eliminating the Department of Education.
"If you send less money to Washington, you'll have more in your state for education," he said.
But Grayson said there was a role for Washington in education, citing both the capital needs of the state's public universities and the students who need tuition assistance.
"Rand would end all that financial aid for students at Murray [State University] and [the University of Kentucky]," he said.
They also split on Washington's role in agriculture.
Grayson said the federal government had an "important role" in agriculture and that he would have supported the farm bill McConnell helped pushed through Congress.
Paul touted his opposition to the estate tax but said he opposed federal subsidies for farms.
"I'm not in favor of giving welfare to business," he said.
The two also offered notably different responses when asked who they'd support for GOP leader of the Senate.
Paul initially sought to dodge the question, indicating that McConnell hasn't had a challenge in years past.
But pressed on what he'd do if McConnell was opposed for the post, Paul said: "Then we'd have to know who his opponent was and discuss it at that time."
While allowing that McConnell's position had been good for Kentucky, he did pointedly bring up his disagreement with the leader on TARP and suggested Grayson would merely be a lackey for the leader.
"I think Kentucky wants two U.S. senators, not one," Paul said. I don't think we want a rubber stamp of one senator for the other senator. So I will be my own person."
Grayson, whose campaign is being directed by McConnell's political organization, said he'd "proudly" support the state's senior senator.
Even as Paul and Grayson clashed through much of the debate, their back-and-forth was often sidetracked by two obscure GOP candidates who also appeared on the program.
John Stephenson clutched a cane even as he sat down, said his home had been foreclosed, touted how little money he had raised and repeatedly quoted scripture.
"Being Baptist won't stop you from sinning, but it will stop you from enjoying it," Stephenson quipped at one point.
Also in the debate was three-piece-suit-wearing Gurley Martin, 86, who fondly recalled his work on Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign as well as a "legal hanging" in his youth.
"People came from everywhere and the crime wave went down immediately," Martin recalled by way of relaying his support for the efficacy of the death penalty.