Oct. 22, 2010 -- From "Aqua Buddha" to shady brotherhoods, the Kentucky Senate race has become an ideological battleground, and one that many analysts are dubbing as one of the nastiest races in the country.
Conservative Republican candidate Rand Paul charges that his opponent Jake Conway "descended into the gutter" by authorizing an ad that questions Paul's membership in an anti-Christian secret society when he was a student at Baylor University in Texas, and allegations that he once tied up a woman and told her to bow down before a deity called "Aqua Buddha."
After a debate Sunday filled with personal attacks, Paul even refused to shake hands with Conway.
In a campaign year filled with intense ideological debates and personal attacks, it's difficult to give any one race the title of the nastiest. Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle told Harry Reid to "man up" last week, and someone in California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown's campaign called his opponent "a whore," just to name a few examples.
But the Kentucky race has many asking whether unspoken rules that have guided decorum in previous races are fizzling out.
"Are negative ads out of the norm? Of course not. We've been witnessing this in American politics forever and it's very commonplace. Negative ads have proven to be quite effective," said Joe Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University's Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement.
What sets the Kentucky race apart, though, is that rules of decorum have fallen completely by the wayside.
"This sense of decorum that's typically observed -- the refusal to shake hands, not looking him (Conway) in the face afterward. And then accusations by Paul afterward that Conway overstepped his boundaries and stooped to a new low," Gershtenson said. "It's gotten nasty."
Paul argues that he's being misrepresented, and that the ad immorally targets him and his family. The Tea Party-backed candidate had even threatened to pull out of next week's debate but today agreed to participate.
"If we decide to do it, it would be only under the rule that we're going to talk about the issues of the day and not have him sit there and rattle off accusations about my religion," Paul said Thursday in an interview with radio host Laura Ingraham.
Conway's campaign, meanwhile, is refusing to back down from the ad, which has earned the ire of even some liberals.
"Rand Paul and his Washington friends can huff and puff all they want, but he still hasn't explained his actions: why he joined a secret society after the President of Baylor University banned it because it 'made fun of not only the Baptist religion, but Christianity and Christ,''" said Conway's communications director, John Collins. "Rand doesn't have the guts to explain his actions to the people of Kentucky."
Paul has denied reports that he was involved in an alleged kidnapping of a girl while at Baylor, calling the stories a lie.
Paul is leading Conway by about five percentage points, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted on Monday and Tuesday. While Paul continues to maintain a solid lead since he won the primary, the margin between the two candidates has narrowed considerably in recent weeks.
Kentucky Senate Race Heats Up
The Kentucky Senate race also highlights the wide ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats in this election cycle.
Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, supports limited government, a repeal of the new health care law, and changes in the federal tax code, although he hasn't said what he would do in that regard if he were elected to the Senate.
The ophthalmologist is banking on the anti-Washington agenda momentum that has gripped the state and the country.
Conway in turn has tried to paint Paul's view on Social Security as out of the norm, and run on the platform of protecting Social Security, providing tax breaks for small businesses, and improving education.
Most recently, Conway has seized on Paul's comments from earlier this year where he suggested replacing the federal income tax with a sales tax, a comment that Paul's campaign has attempted to downplay.
But the Kentucky attorney general faces a tough road in the next week and a half in a state where President Obama's disapproval rating is high and views on the health care law and government spending don't favor Democrats.
Fifty-six percent of likely voters disapprove of Obama's performance as president, and 52 percent favor repealing the health care law, according to the Mason-Dixon poll.
To take advantage of this discontent, Paul -- like many of his counterparts -- has sought to tie Conway to Obama. The Conway campaign is hoping to build support with the help of Bill Clinton, who took a trip to Kentucky to rally for the Democratic candidate and will return to the state again on the eve of the election to campaign for Conway. Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in Kentucky's 2008 presidential primary.
Conway's ad has garnered nationwide attention for Conway and lifted his visibility but analysts say it hasn't done much to swing the tide either way.
"Did it seal his fate? I don't think this would be something that drove the nail in the coffin if the coffin hadn't already been sealed," Gershtenson said.
Conway will likely up his attack as Nov. 2 approaches. His strategy, experts say, will be to undermine support for Paul and continue to paint his views as out of the norm.
"The challenge is that Democrats have got to get more excited. They've got to kick in and do it," said W. Terry McBrayer, a Democratic lobbyist and senior partner for the Lexington law firm of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland. "What I have seen is that he (Paul) has flatlined and is not going to get any more votes. It's our job to take it from him."
Paul's campaign, meanwhile, is likely to continue attacking Democrats' record and connecting Conway more closely to Obama while at the same time assuring voters of his own Christian faith and sensibility.
Both campaigns have attracted millions of dollars. According to local reports, Paul raised $2.6 million in the third quarter and has nearly $1.5 million in the bank. Conway raised $1.7 million and has roughly $1 million.