WASHINGTON — Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson has formed an exploratory committee for a possible run in 2010 for the U.S. Senate seat now held by fellow Republican Jim Bunning, adding a new wrinkle to the closely-watched race and fueling speculation about Bunning's future.
In a statement, Grayson said he had formed the exploratory committee "to allow me to formally raise and spend funds as I seek support for a bid for U.S. Senate."
Grayson, considered a protege of Bunning's, has said in the past that he wouldn't consider running against Bunning unless the senator gave his blessing.
Grayson's announcement led some Washington-based political Web sites, including Politico and Roll Call, to report that Bunning, 77, appeared headed toward retirement.But a spokesman said Bunning has not changed his plans.
"Senator Bunning has every intention of running," Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard said Thursday.
Grayson met with Bunning and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday and called members of the state's congressional delegation before publicly announcing the exploratory committee, said Billy Piper, McConnell's chief of staff. "He wished him luck," Piper said.
Bunning is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the 2010 cycle, and has faced increasing pressure from within the party over his pursuit of another term. He has publicly sparred with party leaders, including McConnell.
He even accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of trying to court primary challengers when members of that group met with state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, in February. NRSC chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the meeting was a "courtesy visit" and that the party would back Bunning in a contested primary.
In his announcement, Grayson stopped just short of declaring a run. "I have no plans to run against Senator Bunning," he said. "This exploratory committee will allow me to travel the Commonwealth, meet with potential supporters and lay the foundation for a campaign."
Grayson has hired Voter Consumer Research of The Woodlands, Texas, to be his pollster, said Les Fugate, Grayson's spokesman. It is the same public opinion research company used by McConnell.
Jan van Lohuizen, president of Voter Consumer Research, was not immediately available for comment.
Bunning recently said he has not spoken with Cornyn for months and only exchanged a brief greeting with McConnell during a recent political dinner.
During a Tuesday press conference with reporters, Bunning scoffed at the consternation his continued presence in the 2010 race might cause for Republican leaders who want him to step aside in favor of what they perceive as stronger candidates.
Cornyn "threw McConnell under the bus and said ‘We're supporting Sen. Bunning,'" Bunning said during the Tuesday telephone press conference. "He had to eat crow."Despite the back and forth, "Senator Cornyn would support Senator Bunning in whatever he decides to do," NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said Thursday.
Bunning also told reporters during the Tuesday telephone press conference that his second-quarter fund-raising is going well. The Hall of Fame pitcher started the 2010 campaign cycle with a financial handicap after raising less money in the first quarter of the year than a key Democratic challenger.
Bunning pulled in $262,843, bringing his total fund-raising for the campaign to $786,850 and had $375,747 on hand at the end of March. Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, one of two major Democratic contenders for Bunning's seat, has raised $429,552 since he started collecting money Feb. 17.
A Public Policy Polling survey released in April showed Attorney General Jack Conway, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, edging out Grayson 37 to 33 percent. But the same poll showed Grayson edging out Mongiardo. The firm polled 610 Kentucky voters on April 2 and 3. The poll showed Grayson with 40 percent of the vote and Mongiardo at 36 percent.
(Jack Brammer and Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this article.)