Weekend Slingshot: Senate candidates cast stones, voters get beaned

10/17/2010 11:50 PM

The latest televised exchanges between U.S. Senate candidates Jack Conway and Rand Paul have ratcheted up the intensity — and the obvious dislike — between the two candidates. But it’s hard to see what voters get out of all this.

Both on Sunday night’s debate and in new ads that began airing this weekend, the race has suddenly devolved into a back-and-forth over what Paul, the Republican, may or may not have done as a college student at Baylor University in the early 1980s.

Conway launched a commercial Friday night called “Why?” that questions Paul about his membership in a controversial group called the NoZe brothers, who specialized in satirical writings and counter-cultural views in the Baptist environment of Baylor.

That topic dominated the first 20 minutes of the candidates’ latest debate Sunday night at the University of Louisville, which was televised by WHAS-11.

“Why did he freely join a group known for mocking or making fun of people for faith?” Conway asked of Paul — a reference to some of the NoZe brothers’ writings. Conway also asked about an anecdote published this summer by GQ, which quoted a woman who declined to be identified who said Paul and another student tied her up and took her to a river to worship “Aqua Buddha” as a prank. They were all on the college’s swim team together.

“How ridiculous are you?” Paul shot back on Sunday night’s debate. “You embarrass this race. You really have no shame, have you?”

Paul kept going. He said such those who “choose the politics of personal destruction disqualify themselves from consideration.” And then he went on to challenge Conway’s masculinity.

“Run a race as a man,” he said at one point.

Paul could have put the issue to rest by denying it outright. He did not.

Paul sidestepped the questions and sought to dismiss them by saying Conway was making up the accusations or taking the word of an anonymous source. If Paul’s goal was to reject the question without denying it so as not to accused of lying if proof of his college-era actions came to light, then he succeeded.

That led Conway to repeat his questions again and again almost verbatim, which came off more as petulant than forceful. And it also forced Conway to move to an arguably less relevant theme than the ones he had been hitting Paul on — Paul’s statements about favoring a Medicare deductible of $2,000 and that drugs were not “a pressing issue” in the U.S. Senate race.

Overall, the exchanges did little to burnish the image of either candidate.

It also does little to address what voters have wanted to hear most about: addressing the economy, stabilizing the government’s financial situation, and improving Kentuckians’ quality of life.

And their side conversation eclipsed the candidates views on some of the other issues the two have been sparring over during the last week, such as whether Paul backtracked on his support for a 23% national sales tax or the political effects of Conway taking campaign contributions from employees of energy companies while Conway, as attorney general, was representing taxpayers in energy rate cases.

Here are the weekend ads that provided the tone for the debate:

Conway is leaning heavily on Washington Post, GQ and Politico articles about the satirical writings and activities of the NoZe brotherhood.

The last statement in the ad about Paul favoring revoking tax breaks for charities is much more thinly sourced. Ad documentation provided by the Conway campaign cites Paul’s statements in favor of simplifying the tax code and replacing the federal income tax with a 23% national sales tax as the back-up for that statement, which is clearly a stretch.

Paul went up with a new ad Sunday night called “False Witness” that responds to Conway’s commercials by stressing his faith and describing Conway’s ad as “a desperate attack.”

- Ryan Alessi

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