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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul talks to supporters in Bowling Green, Ky., on May 17, 2010.Joe Imel/The Associated Press

In these times of historic polarization in U.S. politics, even the most conservative Democrat in the Senate is now considered more liberal than the most moderate Republican.

Wait until Rand Paul joins the club.

Dr. Paul, the favoured candidate to win the Republican Senate nomination in Tuesday's Kentucky primary, wants Congress to withdraw his country from United Nations programs, meddle in U.S. central bank policy, and abolish the federal education department.

The 47-year-old eye surgeon preaches a curious mixture of libertarianism (he favours legalizing medical marijuana and slashing government to its elemental functions) and moral righteousness (he advocates a constitutional amendment banning abortion outright). He also has the GOP establishment scared stiff.

Dr. Paul, the son of Texas congressman and 2008 GOP presidential contender Ron Paul, has exploited name recognition, Tea Party anger and wall-to-wall exposure on Fox News to emerge as the most radical face yet of the new Republicanism.

Dr. Paul's desperate opponent for the GOP Senate nomination in Kentucky has run ads that loosely question his sanity. The latest has Dr. Paul's face encircled by Looney Tunes-like rings. An announcer describes "Rand's world" as "wild, wacky and dangerous."

"It doesn't seem to have stuck very much," offered Barbara Bardes, a University of Cincinnati political science professor who lives on the Kentucky side of the Ohio-Kentucky border. "This is a fight over who can prove he is the most conservative."

Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, 38, had been considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination when incumbent GOP Senator Jim Bunning, a 78-year-old one-time major league baseball pitcher, was not-so-politely steered toward the door by Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky and the powerful Senate Minority Leader.

Mr. McConnell, along with the rest of the Republican establishment, lined up behind Mr. Grayson, whose other backers include former vice-president Dick Cheney, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and crooner-turned-conservative-militant Pat Boone.

Dr. Rand has the GOP mavericks on his side, including Sarah Palin, Steve Forbes and Jim DeMint, the arch-conservative South Carolina senator who has stirred revolt within his own party by backing Tea Party candidates such as Marco Rubio in Florida and Chuck DeVore in California.

Like his father, who is venerated by a small but vocal core of financially generous followers, Dr. Paul has harnessed Tea Party energy to fuel his campaign. Most of his funding has come from outside Kentucky, raised via the Internet in so-called "money bombs."

Dr. Paul's calm demeanour belies his outlier politics. Like his father, he eschews fire-and-brimstone lecturing and seems instead to evoke common-sense reasonableness. But there is nothing mainstream about his views.

A self-described "constitutional conservative," he advocates minimalist government - though he opposes Medicare payment cuts for doctors like him - and American isolationism. He brandishes a suspicion of international institutions and denounces "American subservience" to organizations such as the International Monetary Fund. He claims to draw his inspiration from Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inaugural address and its call for "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations - entangling alliances with none."

Dr. Paul, who has a solid double-digit lead in the polls, will benefit from the low turnout that primary races usually generate, as the most motivated - in this case, angriest - voters dictate the winner. But he could be disadvantaged by rules that allow only electors who registered as Republicans by the end of 2009 to vote in the Kentucky GOP primary. Many of Dr. Rand's supporters are new to the party.

The polls also indicate that Dr. Paul would defeat either of the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in this fall's Senate race. But University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss expressed skepticism that Dr. Paul's brand of politics will play well in poverty-stricken rural Kentucky, where defence of government-funded social programs has long been a staple of the state's "populist mountain Republicanism."

"There will be claims by his opponent that he is going to be very harmful to Kentucky in getting the help it needs," Prof. Voss explained. "That will be very effective."

For the moment, however, Dr. Paul's surge to the top of the polls lends credence to the "disappearing centre" theory of U.S. politics, as both parties in this primary season - though especially Republicans - cede to the centrifugal forces within their own ranks.

Add in the anemic participation in midterm congressional elections - when as few as a third of Americans turn out to vote - and the agitation of anti-Obama Tea Partiers, and Dr. Rand could soon be Senator Rand.

"He's got a shot at it," Prof. Bardes opined. "The Tea Party is very strong here. They are stirred up. They are intense. And people who are intense get out and vote."

If you think the 111th Congress is polarized, just wait for the 112th.

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