WASHINGTON -- Alison Lundergan Grimes stumbled out of the gate in Kentucky earlier this month when she announced that she would run against five-term incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell in next year's Senate race.
The 34-year-old Democratic secretary of state has the right blood lines: She's the daughter of the former Democratic Party state chairman. But though she is well-schooled in the basics -- firm handshake, straight-ahead manner and careful talking points -- Grimes launched her campaign without a website, position papers, staff or much of anything else.
Team Mitch unloaded with derision and precision, posting an online video portraying Grimes as Barack Obama's dancing partner (the president isn't popular in Kentucky) and a tree-hugging foe of the state's powerful coal industry.
But a Senate race is a long-distance affair, especially in Kentucky, where polls show that McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is weak, at a time when voters everywhere despise Congress and Washington. And now in the second furlong, evidence is beginning to emerge that Grimes may turn into a surprisingly formidable foe for a man who is more than twice her age.
In her first major appearance before national party leaders, Saturday on Martha's Vineyard, Grimes wowed Democratic senators, Senate candidates and donors alike at the party's annual private summer fundraising retreat.
Each year the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee invites top donors to schmooze with senators, especially those up for reelection, and inspect the merchandise of challengers who will take on Republican incumbents.
Grimes spoke to the group Saturday morning and brought the jaded and normally undemonstrative crowd to its feet in wild applause, said one top donor, who had been deeply skeptical of the idea that McConnell could be knocked off by anyone. He and another attendee spoke to The Huffington Post on the condition that their names not be used.
Grimes' feisty talk, the sources said, mixed a commitment to a Democratic job-creation agenda with a pedal-to-the-metal attack on McConnell.
"I've been going to these for years, and I have never, until this morning, seen a candidate get a standing O," said the donor, who is among the top 100 contributors to the committee over the last five years. "It was amazing."
Clearly, dislike of McConnell -- a shrewd, remorseless combatant in the Senate and in GOP circles nationally -- is one reason why Grimes was so well-received in Martha's Vineyard. It's also well-known that former President Bill Clinton, who is close to Grimes' father, encouraged her to enter the race.
But another reason that she was a hit, an attendee said, was that she exceeded expectations with a good speech, strong presence and youthful appeal. "She's attractive, by the way," the donor said. "Doesn't hurt."