Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Blankenship third-party bid worries Senate GOP Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' MORE’s vote to advance debt-ceiling legislation could have been the moment of weakness conservatives needed to defeat the Senate GOP leader.

Instead, the surprise move might indicate just how little the Kentucky senator is worried about the threat so far from challenger Matt Bevin.

In the seven months since Bevin launched his campaign to topple the Bluegrass titan, statewide observers say his underdog bid hasn’t caught the traction he needs before the May primary.

Bevin was already struggling with fundraising and in the polls. McConnell’s maneuvers to allow a debt-ceiling vote to proceed gave his opponents hope, but that golden opportunity was quickly erased by mishandling of his response to the revelation that Bevin signed a letter praising the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

“It can now be called underperforming,” Al Cross, a veteran state political commentator and professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, said of Bevin’s bid.

Political experts say Bevin shot himself in the foot after a letter surfaced that he signed on to while serving as president of Veracity Funds praising the bailout as a “positive” development.

The resulting scrutiny over his past views while working at the investment firm distracted from his effort to focus attention on McConnell’s vote.

Instead of pouncing immediately on the Feb. 12 vote, Bevin last week released two 15-second ads criticizing McConnell’s vote to send the 1991 crime bill to a Senate-House conference and his longtime support of congressional earmarks.

It wasn’t until Monday that he launched a short 15-second ad bashing the minority leader for his vote, but the small scope of the $30,000 media buy, limited to cable stations, was seen by observers as another sign that Bevin’s campaign is floundering.

D. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, initially doubted that Bevin’s endorsement of the letter would hurt his campaign, but his “clumsy” response inflamed the issue.

Voss said even conservative voters would not have likely blamed Bevin for touting the potential benefit of the federal bailout on financial stocks when investors were worried about losing their nest eggs.

“Then you get how the Bevin campaign has handled this, which to me as somebody who studies campaigns and elections is almost a textbook example of how you do not handle a controversy,” he said.

Voss said Bevin’s campaign rolled out “a whole series of excuses” that don’t necessarily fit together and “raise additional questions.”

“A very clumsy handling of what I thought should have been an open and shut issue,” said Voss.

Bevin repeatedly suggested that he was required by law to sign the letter and insisted it did not reflect his views. Experts in securities and corporate law, however, panned his defense as nonsense. 

“You sign it, it’s your statement. If there’s a problem with it, it’s on you,” said Adam C. Pritchard, who teaches corporate and securities law at the University of Michigan and disputed Bevin’s claim.

The firestorm over the bailout posed a major quandary for Bevin because he launched his candidacy last year with a major ad buy slamming McConnell for voting for the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

It was easy to connect the apparent hypocrisy. 

“Is this the end for Matt Bevin?” the Lexington Herald-Leader asked last week.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the most influential Tea Party figure in the state, said Bevin hurt his credibility by appearing inconsistent on the issue. Paul endorsed McConnell last year, a pivotal development that made it more difficult for Bevin to rally conservative activists against McConnell.

“There is enough time, but I don’t know anybody who thinks Matt Bevin has a chance to win. It’s just too big a job to knock off Mitch McConnell,” said Cross, a longtime observer of Bluegrass State politics.

Recent polls show Bevin trailing McConnell by between 26 and 42 points with just three months to go before the May 20 primary.

Fritz Wenzel, a GOP pollster who worked on Paul’s campaign, recently conducted a survey of his own in Kentucky. That Wenzel Strategies poll showed Bevin with a 25 percent to 30 percent favorable-to-unfavorable ratio. Another recent Bluegrass Poll showed Bevin with a favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of 12 percent to 23 percent.

Wenzel said one reason Bevin couldn’t use the debt vote as a sticking point was because few voters are paying attention to him anyway.

“More than half the voters in the survey said they didn’t even know who he was. He just has a tremendously low name familiarity,” Wenzel said.

Tom Skidmore, a Democratic political consultant based outside of Lexington, predicted, “I don’t think Bevin will make a dent in McConnell.”

Instead, polls show McConnell will face a much tougher challenge against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. Former President Clinton has served as an adviser and will travel to Kentucky, which he carried in 1992 and 1996, on Tuesday to raise money for her campaign.

Bevin faced questions about his credentials soon after he began exploring a campaign against McConnell when The Hill reported that his LinkedIn page included a misleading representation that he graduated from a program affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But McConnell’s team didn’t take Bevin for granted, either. His campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said it had been working to “expose” Bevin’s “willingness to inflate his experiences and lie about his background.”

Still, Bevin’s campaign believes McConnell’s attacks haven’t been particularly potent — that his team has shown a lack of discipline in their messaging, jumping from a focus on his exaggerated educational ties to the bailout issue in a way they see as disjointed.

And from their perspective, the attacks won’t gain traction because McConnell, unpopular as he is, isn’t a trusted messenger for Kentuckians. The Bluegrass Poll showed Kentuckians feel he’s doing as bad a job as President Obama, with 60 percent panning both their job performances. And 50 percent of respondents said they view him unfavorably.

Bevin’s team knows it’s facing a significant disadvantage in terms of resources and won’t be able to combat McConnell punch for punch, and could run out of cash if it starts now. A campaign strategist said the race starts in earnest for them on April 1.

Bevin reported only $523,000 in cash on hand at the start of the year, after raising $1.7 million — including $600,000 he lent to himself — in 2013. McConnell reported $10.9 million in cash on hand at the beginning of 2014.

“The last six weeks of this campaign are when it is going to be won. Our objective from day one is to be in a position that when we get to those last six weeks, we’re going to really make it a fight,” Rachel Semmel, Bevin’s spokeswoman, told The Hill.