One candidate could be cursed by Aqua Buddha -- but which one?

10/20/2010 05:19 PM

Aqua Buddha.

Those two words are destined to be ingrained in Kentucky politics. The fictional deity — which may or may not have been part of a college prank that Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul may or may not have participated in — has dominated the past five days of the race thanks to a now notorious commercial from Democrat Jack Conway’s campaign.

Conway’s ad pulled largely from Paul’s college days first outlined in a GQ story on Aug. 9 about Paul’s involvement in an underground secret society-like group, calling themselves the NoZe Brotherhood. The Washington Post and Politico have since followed up on that original story.

The ad provided a nasty backdrop for Sunday night’s debate between the two men, which then caught the attention of the nation. National Politicos have been chattering about whether it was an ill-conceived Hail Mary strategic move by  Conway’s campaign. The Republicans have compiled a kind of greatest hits video of pundits slamming Conway.

And it has made for late night television fodder:

The result of all this has been that both campaigns have rushed to the defensive, underscoring how uncertain everyone is about what effect this tactic may have on the race.

While the Aqua Buddha part might be the sensational take-away that late night hosts and talking heads buzz over, the underlying message in Conway’s ad that has stirred up all this is that Paul associated himself in college with those who “mocked” Christianity.

Perhaps the swift and steady response by Paul’s campaign on the religious aspect reveals how seriously that campaign is taking the line of attack.

Paul’s campaign rushed to defend the candidate’s faith with a response ad that went up less than 48 hours after Conway launched his ad Friday night. (Go to the bottom of this post to view both commercials).

Tuesday, Paul’s campaign had several religious leaders in Kentucky denounce the Aqua Buddha ad. The leaders called the it “desperate,” “simply out of bounds,” and “very weak.” While some of them said they were involved in Paul’s campaign, others said hadn’t been. And at least one minister, Willie Ramsey of Somerset Church of Christ, said he wasn’t familiar with Paul’s religious beliefs.

“I do not know any details of his religion at all,” Ramsey said.

Another said that the candidate’s actual belief system isn’t important, but his stands on issues important to Christians are.

“On moral issues and policy issues is where we have to look,” Bill Haynes, the pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Somerset, said.

Then Wednesday, Paul’s wife Kelley — a deacon at their church — said she was “shocked” by the ad and defended her husband’s Christian devotion.

As for the candidates — they’re continuing to spin their talking points on national TV, with Conway getting scolded for what interviewers describe as questioning someone’s religious beliefs. Conway disagrees, saying the ad is about Paul’s actions, not his religious beliefs.

Conway and surrogates, such as state Auditor Crit Luallen, have reminded reporters at every turn that Paul has avoided addressing the question of why he joined the NoZe Brotherhood, which had a reputation for writing satirically about religion and specifically the Baptist environment at Baylor University. GQ’s full profile of Paul had more details about that, as did the Washington Post. In the story, Sargent detailed positions Paul staked out in letters to the editor to the student newspaper at Baylor during his time there.

Paul has continued to call the questions Conway raised in the ad “ridiculous.” Paul railed against Conway on an interview with Sean Hannity. And Wednesday, Paul told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that he didn’t remember the Aqua Buddha event at all.

Paul has repeatedly stressed that the Aqua Buddha portion of the ad rests on accusations of a woman who has remained anonymous.

In the original GQ story, she told author Jason Zengerle that Paul and another member of the Baylor swim team came to her room, tied her up and drove her to a stream. “They told me their god was ‘Aqua Buddha’ and that I needed to bow down and worship him,” she said in the article.

For a few days, the story about Aqua Buddha was bandied about by some news organizations and political sites. Paul denied ever kidnapping — a word that never appeared in the Aug. 9, GQ story, but did show up in other news stories about the article.

“No, I never was involved with kidnapping. No, I never was involved with forcibly drugging people,” Paul said.

Two days later, Washington Post reporter Greg Sargent interviewed the woman who still claimed — anonymously — that she was involved in the Aqua Buddha prank. She backed up Paul’s claim, admitting “they didn’t force me, they didn’t make me,” to the Washington Post. But she insisted that the event did occur, forced or cooperative, a claim Paul has never denied. Aqua Buddha made news in several other national publications.

Then the race turned back to actual campaign issues.

By the end of that week in August, Aqua Buddha gave way to a story the Associated Press reported quoting Paul as saying that drugs weren’t “a pressing issue” in Kentucky during a campaign stop in Eastern Kentucky.

But the debates between Paul and Conway over fighting drugs, $2,000 Medicare deductibles and the future of Social Security eventually gave way to Aqua Buddha. Here’s Conway’s ad:

Conway’s campaign has promoted that Factcheck.org has said that most of the claims in the ad are very documented, even though it notes one point in the ad, the one claiming Paul wants to end tax deductions for religious charities, is misleading.

Sargent, the Washington Post reporter, once again interviewed the woman involved in the Aqua Buddha incident, who says the claims Conway made in the ad were accurate, yet “over the top.”

Still, Paul’s counter-ad accuses Conway of bearing “false witness.”

In person, Paul has struggled to hide his outrage at Conway.

He ended Sunday night’s debate at the University of Louisville by refusing to shake Conway’s hand.

And he threatened to cancel his appearance on the last debate, scheduled to be shown statewide on Kentucky Educational Television.

In just five days, the Aqua Buddha strategy has re-made the Kentucky U.S. Senate race. But it remains to be seen what its lasting effect with voters will be.

- Kenny Colston

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