A man not even on the ballot quickly became the focal point Sunday as two candidates vying to fill a U.S. Senate seat for Kentucky appeared in their first of five scheduled televised debates.
"I think this election is really about the President's agenda; do you support the President's agenda or do you not support it?" Republican Rand Paul told Fox News moderator Chris Wallace in the debate's first exchange.
"I think his agenda is wrong for America. I will stand up against President Obama's agenda," said Paul, 47, an eye doctor making his first run for public office. His father is two-time Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, a libertarian U.S. Congressman from Texas. The younger Paul moved to Kentucky 17 years ago and established his practice in Bowling Green, near his wife's hometown.
Democrat Jack Conway, 41, from Louisville, the state's attorney general since January 2008, endorses the pillars of Obama's legislative program, the economic stimulus -- which he says saved 17,000 Kentucky jobs -- and health care reform. But Conway told the debate audience his support of Obama is conditional.
"I am a proud Democrat. I'm certainly not going to be on the left of Barack Obama," Conway said. He breaks with the President, for example, by supporting an extension of President Bush's income tax cuts for all income brackets and in opposing the system of greenhouse gas reduction know as "cap and trade."
The President won only 41 percent of the Kentucky vote against John McCain, after badly losing the state's Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton.
While Paul aligns with national Republicans in advocating a repeal of the new health care law, Conway says he wants to "fix it". For example, Conway says he'd seek a new provision for Medicare to engage in bulk purchasing of prescription drugs to lower drug prices for seniors.
Conway says the passed legislation will allow 654,000 Kentucky residents to get health insurance, including 19,000 young adults who will be able to stay on their parents' plans until they are 26-years-old, and offers 45,000 small business subsidies to pay employee premiums.
"Does Rand Paul want to repeal all of that? What would he replace it with?" Conway told CBS News last week.
Throughout his campaign, Paul has declined to be interviewed, as have his campaign officials and the chairman of the state Republican Party.
"If you have questions, you can email me," campaign press secretary Gary Howard said at the front door of Paul's campaign headquarters in Bowling Green last week.Not that Paul has any difficulty articulating his core campaign message of aggressively shrinking federal government agencies and balancing the budget. He likes to point out, by his calculation, that President Obama's nearly $800 billion stimulus package amounted to $413,000 per job created.
At left, watch Nancy Cordes' report on the race on the CBS Evening News
"We really have come to take our government back," Paul told a rally in the northern Kentucky town of Erlanger on Saturday night. "Can government grow so large that we can never get back our freedom?"
True to his philosophy of slashing government spending, Paul told Fox moderator Chris Wallace that he would vote to raise the retirement age to collect Social Security in full, raised last year to 66.
"For the younger generation, there will have to be changes in eligibility," Paul said, to keep the program solvent.
Paul stunned the Republican Party when he upset the state's establishment candidate, Trey Grayson, in the May primary. His win was fueled by support from the conservative Tea Party movement that has hastened the demise of nearly a dozen mainstream Republican Senate and Gubernatorial candidates nationwide.
Greg Jent helped organize the first Tea Party rally in Bowling Green on tax day, April 15, 2009, when hundreds filled the old town square.
"Everybody kind of woke up and said, 'we're too far in debt, we've got too many things going on, our government has its hands in too many things,' and they weren't happy about it," said Jent, a businessman pursuing a masters degree in economics.
Rand Paul made one of his first public speeches that day.
"Calling for a balanced budget amendment is not radical. Calling for term limits is not radical," Jent said, in defense of Paul. "And making the congressmen read the bill before they pass it -- before they vote on it -- that's so far from radical that I can't believe they can say that."
Thad Connally, who owns First Choice Home Medical, a supply store less than a mile from Paul's medical office, appreciates Paul's focus on getting government spending under control.
"I like the fact that he's not a career politician," Connally said.
"This victory is about whether or not conservatives can win," Paul told the crowd Saturday night. "This election's about more than me."
But in many ways, the Kentucky race has been all about Paul -- his position at the vanguard of the Tea Party movement and his controversial comments, such as his criticism in past interviews of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a profile in GQ magazine, Paul loosely likened worsening American economic conditions to the chaos in Weimer Republic Germany that presaged the rise of the Nazis.
Conway says, "Who on earth would invoke Hitler in a Senate campaign in 2010? I reject him and I reject his brad of politics altogether."
Conway has also seized on a Paul statement downplaying the drug problem in a state plagued by high opiate addiction rates, particularly due to illicit use of the pain killer Oxycontin.
Conway routinely calls Paul "radical" and "risky" for his calls to eliminate the federal departments of education and agriculture and to roll back environmental and mine safety regulations.
"He would look at widows of coal miners and say, 'you know what, sometimes accidents happen, and there's no need for federal mine safety regulations," Conway told supporters undergoing "get out the vote" training on Saturday.
"Mine regulations are written in the blood of coal miners, and we have to stand up for them," Conway said.
Conway narrowly lost his 2002 bid for the House of Representatives seat for the Louisville area. In 2007, he rebounded to win the statewide race for attorney general. He sees his biggest accomplishments as launching a cyber-crimes unit that has removed more than 80,000 child pornography images from the Internet, and collecting $100 million for Medicare fraud.
Ilona Franck and her husband, Bill, grabbed a stack of Conway yard signs at the Saturday gathering.
"I like his record. He's been a good attorney general for the state. He has tried to reduce the dependence on prescription drugs. I like that the fact that he has tried to go after porn on the Internet," said Mrs. Franck.
"He is a moderate Democrat, and I hope he is able to be elected in this kind of climate that we have," she said.
Recent polls have shown the race to be a dead heat. A CNN/Time poll in the first week of September showed the candidates tied at 46 percent, while a SurveyUSA poll released last week gave Paul 47 percent and Conway 45 percent.This story was filed by CBS News producer Phil Hirschkorn and correspondent Nancy Cordes.