Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway are at odds over a number of critical issues, such as health care reform and taxes, but the in the last two weeks of the campaign season, the Kentucky Senate race may come down to a quarrel over Paul's religion.
The two candidateson Sunday, during a debate, over whether Conway crossed the line by airing an ad that calls into question Paul's commitment to Christianity, given his history of affiliating with a group in college that mocked religion.
The ad has spurred a strong backlash -- even from liberals -- who say Conway did himself a disservice by attacking Paul's religion. Others, meanwhile, have defended Conway's aggressive ad, arguing that the Democrat needs to reveal Paul's extreme views to voters if he wants to pick up some necessary momentum before Nov. 2. Recent polls give Paul a slight lead but show Conway within striking distance. It remains to be seen whether his ad will prompt Kentucky voters to question Paul's character, or whether it will come off as a distasteful attack.
Conway's ad is keeping alive the story that Paul, while in college,and allegedly once led a young woman to a creek, tied her up, and demanded she worship the "Aqua Buddha." Conway said Sunday he was airing the ad because "values matter."
Some liberal commentators turned up their noses at the advertisement -- even if they agreed with the premise that Paul's belief in Christianity is questionable.
"The trouble with Conway's ad is that it comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office," wrote Jonathan Chait of the New Republic. "That's a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign."
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com urged readers to donate the Paul's campaign in response to the ad.
Others defended Conway, arguing that voters don't know enough about Paul.
"People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul's extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows," Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard, told Talking Points Memo. "This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a 'requirement for public office' as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them."
Similar political scenarios provide negligible evidence as to whether Conway's ad could be effective. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza points to the 2008 ad then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) ran against her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, calling her "Godless." Kagan launched a response ad criticizing the line of attack -- just as Paul has now -- and went on to win by a solid 9-point margin.
However, not all examples suggest the ad would work in Paul's favor. And yesterday, the Lexington-Herald Leader gave its endorsement to Conway, suggesting as Democrats would, that Paul is too extreme.
"Since riding the Tea Party wave to victory in the Republican primary as a relatively unvetted candidate, Paul has spent the summer and early fall revealing himself to be quite the ideologue who's long on simplistic slogans but short on understanding the drastic consequences of adhering to those slogans," the newspaper's editorial board wrote.
Paul is far from the only candidate in this election cycle to be dogged by attacks that have little to do with policy. Personal attacks against Tea Partiers appear to have hurt some candidates, such as Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, but have left barely a scratch on others, like Nevada's Sharron Angle.
CBS rates the Kentucky Senate race as having a GOP edge.
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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