FRANKFORT, Kentucky — Tea party darling Rand Paul endorsed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell long ago, but that didn't stop him Friday from sharing kind words about McConnell's GOP primary challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
"I think he's a good, honest, Christian man," Paul told reporters in Louisville, shortly after Bevin officially filed to run against McConnell in next May's GOP primary in Kentucky. "I'm not saying anything bad about Matt Bevin."
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said later Paul "misspoke a little" in assessing Bevin. He attributed it to Paul not knowing McConnell's challenger well.
"I don't know exactly why those words came out of Sen. Paul's mouth," said Benton, who managed Paul's successful 2010 general election Senate campaign in Kentucky.
Benton's own assessment of Bevin: "He does have a long record of stretching and bending the truth to suit his purposes."
Bevin delivered candidacy papers to the secretary of state's office, then led a campaign rally in the Capitol Rotunda with about 50 supporters where he praised Paul while taking shots at McConnell.
Bevin, making his first political run, is taking on a Republican powerhouse in McConnell, Kentucky's longest-serving U.S. senator. He is seeking a sixth term.
The winner of the matchup will likely face Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's incumbent secretary of state, in next fall's general election.
McConnell and Grimes haven't yet filed candidacy papers, but they are actively campaigning and fundraising. McConnell has collected $17.7 million for his campaign. Grimes has raised $2.5 million. Bevin has received $222,000 in contributions and loaned his campaign $600,000.
Paul told reporters he doesn't intend to "get in the middle" of the Republican primary, though he has a political alliance with McConnell that predates Bevin's candidacy.
"I think primaries are good for us," Paul said. "They make us all better."
Paul, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, needs McConnell's connections to the wealthy donors in the Republican establishment. And McConnell needs Paul's tea party ties to help ensure victory in the May 20 primary and to energize his general election campaign.
Bevin said he appreciated the compliment from Paul.
"He knows the very people who support me are the very people who sent him into this position he's in the in the U.S. Senate," Bevin said. "He understands that."
Benton said Paul's endorsement of McConnell carries considerable weight and noted the Senate colleagues have had joint appearances. But he said McConnell's campaign can fight its own battles.
"We don't need him (Paul) to be out there stumping in the trenches and winning us votes. We can go ahead and do that on our own," he said.
Bevin's stump speeches sound much like Paul's from his 2010 campaign, calling for smaller government and lower taxes.
"I've known and respected Rand for a long time," Bevin said. "I voted for him in the primary and voted for him in the general election. I would vote for him again tomorrow in a heartbeat. He ran on certain principles, and he's been true to those principles."
McConnell ignored Bevin during a Friday campaign appearance in Louisville where he received endorsements from some prominent veterans.
"I don't have any observation about the primary," he told reporters afterward.
The senator took aim at his favorite target, President Barack Obama, criticizing the direction of American foreign policy.
"Since World War II, more and more countries want to be like us," McConnell said. "But we, during these years, seem to be questioning not only our role as the leaders in the world but American exceptionalism itself."
Schreiner reported from Louisville.