Bowling Green, Kentucky (CNN) - A win by Rand Paul in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary on Tuesday, a likely prospect according to most polling, would give the Tea Party movement its biggest triumph of the 2010 election season.
But it will also be a win for Democrats who would prefer to run against Paul - a libertarian-leaning ophthalmologist and son of former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas - instead of the other leading GOP contender and establishment favorite, Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Democrats are confident that Paul's uncompromising small-government views - he would like to shutter the departments of Education and Agriculture, for example - will alienate moderate voters in a general election contest against the eventual Democratic nominee, either Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo or Attorney General Jack Conway. Their primary is considered too close to call as the race enters its final hours.
With a campaign message focused on national fiscal issues, Paul has been propelled to the front of the polls almost entirely on the strength of Tea Party activists and opponents of government spending. He's also been able to leverage his father's nationwide network of supporters - a key fundraising base for the Republican.
But his rapid rise has resulted in nothing but headaches for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in Kentucky.
McConnell recruited Grayson into the race last year and lent his political operation to the cause, only to see his candidate falter against a political novice who talks fluently about marijuana policy and favors corduroy pants over suits and ties.
The scenario has GOP leaders fretting about their chances in Kentucky come November.
"Would Republicans be better off with Trey Grayson as their nominee? Yes, absolutely," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Paul hasn't been talking to voters outside the Tea Party movement, by and large. He is talking to his voters. But as of Wednesday, assuming he is the nominee, he has got to talk to the rest of the state."
Republicans worry that Paul's beliefs, particularly on foreign policy matters, will turn off not just moderates but also rank-and-file GOP voters. Paul opposes the Patriot Act, wants to scale back American military efforts abroad and once called for the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Party apostasies like those compelled Republican heavy-hitters like former Vice President Dick Cheney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to publicly back Grayson - but the endorsements only seemed to boost Paul's outsider credentials.
Paul adviser Jesse Benton disputed claims that his candidate would be the weaker candidate in the general election.
"Rand is winning because he is the best candidate in this race," Benton said in an e-mail to CNN. "Kentuckians know that his message of balanced budgets and real spending reform are what our country truly needs to get back on track."
Paul wants an end to all federal earmarks, a stand that has endeared him to foes of government spending and won him support from conservative luminaries like Sen. Jim DeMint and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Kentucky, though, is a poor state that receives more money from the government than it pays in. It has long relied on entrenched congressional leaders like McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers to send federal dollars back home to fund basic projects - everything from roads to education to disaster relief.
Democrats in Kentucky, eager to define Paul quickly once he secures the nomination, say the issue of federal dollars will be a principal line of attack out of the gate once the general election table is set.
"We have been blessed with the seniority of our congressional delegation over the years, both Democrat and Republican," said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from eastern Kentucky. "What Dr. Paul talks about, he is out of touch with a lot of people in Kentucky."
Stumbo agreed with observers who say Paul will be an easier candidate to defeat than Grayson, but a Senate Democratic leadership aide in Washington cautioned that this year’s anti-incumbent mood remains potent and unpredictable.
“There is lot of anger towards Washington and Paul can tap into that,” the aide said. “I’m not convinced that it’s a slam dunk for us.”
The aide stressed that the Democratic nominee must focus on jobs and the economy instead of fixating on negative attacks against the Paul, if he wins the nomination. But the aide said Paul’s more peculiar views would be certainly be fair game in the race.
“I think he is majorly kooky, and he is definitely more beatable than Trey Grayson,” the aide told CNN. “But then again, stranger things have happened in politics.”