FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Protesters carried signs outside Kentucky's Republican Party headquarters decrying U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul's comments on civil rights Saturday while GOP leaders met inside to pledge their support for the candidate.

The meeting was organized to rally the state GOP behind Paul after a bitter primary campaign in which much of the Republican establishment backed his opponent. Rand won by a lopsided margin earlier this week.

But about 30 demonstrators used Saturday's meeting as an opportunity to blast Paul for misgivings he expressed about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Wednesday that he abhors racial discrimination, but suggested the federal government shouldn't have the power to force restaurants to serve minorities if the business owners don't want to.

"It's fundamentally un-American to oppose the Civil Rights Act," said University of Louisville student Perry Green, flanked by a fellow protester carrying a placard declaring: "Rand The Klan's Man."

Paul, a Bowling Green eye doctor and son of former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, didn't mention the civil rights flap in brief remarks to supporters inside GOP headquarters. He refused to take questions when he left Republican headquarters and drove past the demonstrators standing across the street.

Paul has tried to step out of the spotlight, even canceling an appearance on NBC's Meet The Press on Sunday, less than a week after trouncing Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson to win the Republican nomination.

Hundreds of Paul supporters gathered in Frankfort on Saturday to show their support for the first-time candidate. He pledged to hammer on one key message in the general election campaign against Democratic nominee Jack Conway.

"I will call for one simple thing," Paul said. "Let's not spend more money than we take in."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, who had endorsed Grayson in the primary race, called for Republicans to unify behind Paul in the general election and to reach out to Democrats.

"Dr. Rand Paul's message can win this election," McConnell said.

Paul began the race as a longshot against Grayson for the nomination to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, a 78-year-old former major league pitcher who opted not to seek a third term. Employing an Internet fundraising model used by his father, Paul was able to raise some $3 million for the primary.

Despite the bitter primary, Grayson praised Paul at the rally.

"If you are a Kentucky Republican, a Kentucky Democrat or a Kentucky independent, and you know we have to get our fiscal house in order, there's only on choice for you in the fall; it's Dr. Rand Paul," Grayson said.

Democrats have seized on some of Paul's comments since Election Day, including his criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill, calling it overtly antibusiness.

"What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,"' he said in an interview Friday with ABC's "Good Morning America." "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business."

Paul isn't the first politician to criticize the government's handling of the oil spill, but few have dared defend BP in the aftermath of last months' explosion at the offshore rig that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

But the comment about the Civil Rights Act was what most rankled Ashley Courchene, a retired registered nurse.

"I'm ashamed," said Courchene, a Frankfort Democrat. "This makes me sick to my stomach that we, as an educated country, would consider electing someone with a Klan mentality to a public office."