A feisty Mitch McConnell promised to take the fight to any opponent as the Senate's top Republican got a head start on a 2014 re-election campaign that could squeeze him between challenges from his own party as well as from Democrats.
Kentucky's longest-serving senator opened a campaign office in his hometown of Louisville on Saturday, about a year earlier than in his previous campaigns. It was a clear message to critics as he vowed to wage the "biggest and best campaign this state has ever seen."
"They want to take me out," McConnell told a group of supporters. "This is the only race in the country with any national significance. And that's why we're up and running this far in advance."
The Senate minority leader then declared, "If they want to fight, we're ready."
McConnell, in his fifth Senate term, is known as a savvy political strategist and bare-knuckled campaigner. He's also a prolific fundraiser, starting the 2014 election cycle with $7.4 million cash on hand.
Democrats have longed to dislodge him from the Senate, but now he's under attack from some within his own Republican base.
A group of tea parties in the state have said they are trying to line up a challenger to McConnell in next year's primary. McConnell's tea party critics say the senator has supported excessive federal spending throughout his career.
Tea party activist Marilyn Parker, who attended the campaign event Saturday, said in an interview that McConnell's influence as the Senate GOP leader is too important for Kentucky to risk.
"You've got to choose your battles wisely," said Parker, a Louisville Metro Council member. "This would be a seat that I would not jeopardize by playing Russian roulette and potentially letting this seat be taken over by another liberal that's going to take country far left."
Democrats haven't won a U.S. Senate race in Kentucky since 1992. The name mentioned most as a potential challenger to McConnell has been actress and activist Ashley Judd, well-known in Kentucky because of her success in Hollywood and because of her famous mother and sister, country music stars Naomi and Wynonna Judd.
Judd said last month that she is "taking a close look" at the Kentucky Senate race.
While fielding questions from reporters Saturday, McConnell was asked if he expects to face a Republican challenger next year.
"I'm bracing for any challenge," he replied. "I don't own this job. I have no sense of entitlement. I have to earn the respect and votes of my constituents every time, whether it's in the primary or whether it's in the general (election). We're up and running well in advance and we'll be prepared for whatever comes my way."
McConnell, a steadfast critic of President Barack Obama, said that "Obama operatives" are trying to field a strong challenger.
In his speech, McConnell touted his prominent role in end-of-the-year fiscal cliff negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, his longtime Senate colleague. They crafted an eleventh-hour deal that averted across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts.
McConnell said the deal preserved Bush-era tax cuts for nearly all taxpayers.
"So we have permanent tax relief for 99 percent of taxpayers," he said. "That covers all but a couple of thousand people in Kentucky. ... Had I been able to dictate the outcome, nobody's taxes would have gone up. But you may have noticed we don't have the White House. You may have noticed we don't have the Senate. But we were able to get those tax rates permanent."