Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul said Monday he may opt out of a debate next week with Democrat Jack Conway because he is angry about an attack ad that the tea party darling claims questions his Christian beliefs.
"We haven't fully decided, but I'm not sure I will appear in public with someone who is going to question my religion," Paul, a Presbyterian who describes himself as "a pro-life Christian," said during a press conference in Lexington.
Since it began running late Friday, the blistering ad that paints Paul as a religious wacko has overshadowed all other issues in one of the closest watched races in the nation.
The ad is based on published reports that Paul, during his college years, was a member of a secret society at Baylor University known as the NoZe Brotherhood that called the Bible a hoax. A narrator in the ad asks why Paul, while in college, tied a woman up and told her to worship an idol, and why Paul said his god was "Aqua Buddha." Those claims by an anonymous woman were made in articles in GQ Magazine and The Washington Post earlier this year. At the time, Paul called the articles ridiculous.
Paul demanded an apology for his opponent's ad on Sunday in an acrimonious debate after which he refused to shake Conway's hand.
Conway, a Catholic, hasn't apologized. Instead, he has defended the ad. In the debate, Conway said Paul still hasn't answered questions raised in the ad.
"Why did he freely join a group known for mocking, for making fun of people with faith?" Conway asked during the debate. "And secondly, when is it ever a good idea to tie up a woman and ask her to kneel before a false idol, your god, which you call Aqua Buddha?"
The flap has drawn responses from across the country, including one from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who called the ad "a classless attack" that "will be studied by future political scientists as the most egregious example of slash and burn sleaze politics."
"Kentucky people aren't as gullible as Jack Conway must take them for," said Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and former Republican presidential candidate. "I'm proud to stand with Rand Paul and his family through this disgusting attempt by his opponent to win even at the expense of his own soul."
Hoping for sympathy from Kentucky's electorate, Paul prepared Monday to begin airing a TV ad taking Conway to task, charging that the Democrat is engaging in gutter politics.
"I'm disappointed where the level of the debate's gone," Paul told reporters Monday. "It does effect me and my family to talk about my faith."
The Conway campaign put together a conference call for reporters to talk to Kentucky ministers about issues raised in the ad. Only one minister took part, a retired Baptist preacher now living in Alabama who had been active in Democratic politics in Kentucky in the past. Campaign spokesman John Collins said others were supposed to be on the call, but that they had scheduling conflicts.
University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss said Conway's ad, part of a $300,000 purchase of airtime in TV markets statewide, could be effective in that it plays on a widely held impression that Paul "is a little odd." But Voss said, "I suspect that Conway is ultimately going to regret running that ad. Attacking someone's religious convictions when they're running for office has been unpopular for a really long time."
Paul has received endorsements from Christian leaders because of his stands on hot button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Conway, like Paul, opposes same-sex marriages. But the two are on opposite sides in the abortion debate.
"I am 100 percent pro-life and oppose all abortions," Paul said in a response to a questionnaire from The Associated Press. "As a physician, I understand the fragility and value of life at all stages. During my medical training I refused to participate in abortion training, and I continue to oppose abortion now."
Conway defends a woman's right to abortions early in her pregnancy.
"A woman should have the right to make her own health choices in consultation with her family, doctor, and spiritual adviser," Conway said in answer to the same questionnaire. "I believe abortion should be safe, legal and as rare as possible. I oppose late-term abortion and support parental notification laws."