WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul said Monday he's picked up the support of national conservative leader and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The apparent Palin endorsement, coupled with Paul's war chest of $1.3 million at the end of 2009, raises the stakes in an already highly competitive race for retiring Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning's seat.
Paul's Republican primary opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, has more than $1.4 million on hand.
Paul raised $650,000 in the final three months of last year, topping Grayson's $450,000 for the same period. The candidates are neck-and-neck in overall fund raising last year — $1.8 million for Paul to Grayson's $1.7 million.
However, the Palin endorsement is seen as a coup that will play well initially with the state's conservative base.
"Palin is quite clearly popular in Kentucky, so this will give Paul a clear boost in the primary," said University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross.
"But, national candidates' involvement in state races often don't go over well. Palin's endorsement could lead to his being considered a fringe candidate. And his numbers aren't as good in November's general election when he would have to face a Democrat."
Paul said his campaign has received a $2,000 donation from Palin's political action committee and got word of the endorsement late last week. Palin's PAC in Arlington, Va., did not respond to a request for comment.
Paul's candidacy is part of a national trend of Republicans positioning themselves as anti-establishment candidates and challenging GOP favorites. Palin similarly dubbed herself a "maverick" and Washington-outsider during her unsuccessful 2008 vice presidential bid.
"We've been trying to reach out to her publicly and privately," said Paul campaign manager David Adams. "I think what it came down to was Sarah Palin is an outsider, someone who's run up against tremendous resistance from the status quo and Paul is the same. They're kindred spirits."
Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson responded Monday by saying Grayson respects Palin.
"My guess is that if Governor Palin knew Rand Paul's true colors, she would think twice about offering her support of his misguided agenda," Hodson said.
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, is the son of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and has leveraged support among backers of his father's unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign bid and the National Tea Party movement.
Grayson, who was endorsed Monday by 28 state legislators and has the support of many among the GOP's establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, redoubled fund-raising efforts after Paul's surprising strong financial showing last year.
"Our cash on hand lead shows we're running an efficient campaign," Hodson said. "We've been able to match the campaign fund raising of the son of a failed presidential candidate."