Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul angrily accused Democratic rival Jack Conway of gutter politics for running a TV ad that questioned Paul's affiliation during his college years with a group that mocked Christianity.
Paul demanded an apology during a nationally televised debate Sunday night, denouncing the commercial as false and calling himself a "pro-life Christian." Conway offered no apology and even repeated the accusations in his ad, which started airing statewide Friday night.
"Those who stoop to the level of attacking a man's religious beliefs to gain higher office, I believe that they should remember that it does not profit a man to gain the world if he loses his soul in the process," Paul said, referencing a scripture from the Gospel of Mark.
The candidates wrangled over health care, taxes and entitlements, but those issues were overshadowed by a contentious back-and-forth over the ad.
Conway, the state's attorney general, defended the attacks, saying Paul failed to answer the two "fundamental questions" raised in the ad.
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. A narrator in the ad asks why Paul, while in college, tied a woman up and told her to worship an idol called "Aqua Buddha." Those claims by an anonymous woman were made in articles in GQ Magazine and The Washington Post earlier this year.
"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?"
Conway said it was apparent that Paul affiliated with a group that "reveled in sacrilege."
Paul condemned the tactic, saying: "How do you respond to a guy who's going to quote somebody anonymously from 30 years ago that's untrue? You just out-and-out lie because you have nothing to stand on."
The issue flared again in the closing moments, when Paul declared he would not shake Conway's hand afterward, stating: "I will not be associated with someone who attacks my religion."
"We will try to keep the debate on a higher tone," Paul said. "I hope you will leave my church, my family and my religion out of it."
Paul walked past Conway without offering his hand or making eye contact with his Democratic opponent.
Over the weekend, the Paul campaign prepared a response ad that touts the Bowling Green eye surgeon's faith. With TV offices closed over the weekend, they had to wait until Monday morning to begin the process of getting it on the air.
"Rand Paul keeps Christ in his heart and in the life he shares with his wife and his three boys," a narrator says as video plays of him walking and fishing with his family.
Paul said Sunday night he was disheartened that the race had turned so personal.
"We have serious problems in our country ... and he's descended into the gutter to attack my Christian beliefs," said Paul, a Bowling Green eye doctor. Paul and his family attend a Presbyterian church in Bowling Green, where his wife serves as a deacon.
"Jack, you should be ashamed of yourself. You should apologize. Have you no decency? Have you no shame?"
During the debate, Conway kept up his favorite attack lines, accusing Paul of being out of touch with Kentucky's drug problems and claiming Paul supports a $2,000 deductible for Medicare recipients — comments Paul was caught making on videotape shown on YouTube. Paul has said the comment was taken out of context, and that he doesn't support such a high deductible.
Paul, a tea party favorite, advocated his belief in limited government and the free market.
Paul and Conway are competing for the job of retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning.