Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul said Tuesday he has yet to decide whether he will debate Democratic opponent Jack Conway, who by many accounts dragged Kentucky politics into the gutter Friday by releasing an ad attacking Paul for his participation in an anti-religious group in college.
"I can't imagine shaking his hand," Paul, who decried the attack in a Lexington press conference Monday, told Fox News host Sean Hannity. "I'm not sure if I can appear on the same stage as him." Paul refused to shake Conway's hand in an Oct. 17th debate on grounds that Conway was attacking his family and personal beliefs.
But asked whether he would still debate Conway next week on Kentucky Educational Television as previously scheduled, Paul said, "We're still thinking about it," adding, "I think the voters of Kentucky do deserve to learn about the issues...it's a tough decision."
The ad, based on published reports that Paul was a member of the NoZe Brotherhood, a Baylor University secret society that called the Bible a hoax, asks why as a college student, Paul tied a woman up and told her to worship an idol named "Aqua Buddha." When claims made by the anonymous woman first surfaced in GQ Magazine earlier this year, Paul called the report ridiculous, though he has not implicitly denied the incident.
Political truth tracker FactCheck.org concluded in its review of the spot, "the ad's most dramatic claims are well documented. Whether it's fair to dredge up irreverent college hijinks from 30 years ago is another matter, which we'll leave to our readers to judge."
"I'm not misrepresenting anything," Conway, a Catholic, said Tuesday on "The Today Show." "I don't think it's appropriate whether you're 22- years old or you're 42-years old to ever tie up a woman and ask her to kneel down before a false god that you call ‘Aqua Buddha.'"
"Rand Paul keeps Christ in his heart," Paul's counter-ad assures Kentucky voters.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, a group of ministers supporting Rand spoke out against the ad. "I don't think I've ever seen anything more disgusting and more desperate in all my life than that particular ad," said Bill Haynes, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Somerset, Kentucky. "I'm a pastor, and there are some things from my college days I'd just as soon not be brought to light."
Paul says the attack ad could have political repercussions for Conway. "People in our state, when they see someone that viciously attacks another man's faith, and says that I'm not a Christian, really, does that have any place in civil discourse?" he said. "I think really even many of his allies are seeing that he's crossed the line here, and that really this may end up being the end of his campaign."
A Rasmussen telephone survey conducted after the candidates' feisty weekend debate shows that Paul is polling at 47 percent to Conway's 42 percent, Conway's best showing since June and the narrowest lead to date in the Kentucky race.
And Conway on Tuesday brushed off criticism by fellow Democrats, saying the ad doesn't challenge Paul's religious beliefs. "I think that the people who have criticisms need to take a look at the facts of the whole situation. Rand Paul has been asked repeatedly whether or not this occurred. He's never denied it," he said when asked for his response to Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill's comment that the ad "came close to the line."
"I take him at what he says, that listen, he's a Christian," Conway said. "I am not questioning that. I'm questioning his actions."