Will Rand Paul 'Man Up'?

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A confession: When Kentucky's Democratic Senate nominee Jack Conway put up his controversial "Aqua Buddha" ad, alluding to the GQ report that an undergraduate Rand Paul had "kidnapped" a woman and forced her to pray to what Conway grandiosely called "a false idol"--well, I didn't think it was a very big deal. I don't share the outrage that other folks do. The ad struck me as weird and ineffective and an indicator that Conway was probably through. Why put up something so off-topic if not as a Hail Mary? I'm still not convinced it doesn't hurt him.

The ad got a lot of attention in the blogosphere mainly as a kind of liberal Rorsach test: some loved its aggressiveness, others hated that it went after Paul's religiosity (or implied lack thereof). But I had no idea, until I arrived in Kentucky, what a big deal it is here. The controversy is absolutely dominating local coverage of the race: as a news story on all the local channels, in the newspapers, and of course on television as the ad itself (and Paul's rebuttal that Conway is "bearing false witness") is in constant rotation. This is after it originally flared up as a serious issue over the summer.

I spent the morning in Louisville talking to some local politicos (mainly Republicans), who think Paul is going to pull it out, but agree that the race is still close and that Paul isn't doing a good job of handling "Aqua Buddha." For one thing, it's clearly gotten under his skin, and his campaign has gotten totally off message: He's stopped talking about Obama (which is every Kentucky Republican's most effective cudgel). What's more, he's guaranteed that the story will drag on for at least a few more days because at the end of the first candidate debate, Paul dramatically announced that he would not shake hands with Conway because of the ad and would not participate in the next debate, scheduled for Monday. Complicating matters for Paul is that he won't deny the story. It's certainly his right to stand on principle and refuse to discuss a matter he says is beneath his dignity, but in a raw political sense that's keeping the story going.

Conway is hardly basking in goodwill. The NRSC (I think) is running a brutal ad of liberal commentators condemning Conway, and a columnist (a pastor, no less!) in the Louisville Courier-Journal approvingly cited Jonathan Chait's condemnation of Conway this morning.

Later, I drove east to a part of Kentucky wryly described to me by a local conservative as "meth and Medicaid" country. The only topic on political talk radio was the "Aqua Buddha" controversy. I went to hear Mitch McConnell speak to a luncheon of local luminaries. This wasn't a political rally, but the crowd definitely leaned Republican. (Rand Paul was not present and was not mentioned by the speakers, at least that I heard.) Afterward, I asked as many attendees as I could for their thoughts about the race.

Two things became very clear. One, the feeling that Paul should win the race. "Cap and trade is about as popular as 'The Itch' down here," state senator Robert Stivers told me. The mere fact of Conway's being a Democrat when most Democrats in Washington favored cap and trade should have disqualified him. Two, that "Aqua Buddha" presents a problem for Paul--not because anyone believed that Paul wasn't Christian or thought it disqualifyingly aberrant behavior, but because he refused to explain it. "It was college, it was just an initiation," Jerry McIntosh, a local GOP official, told me. "He ought to address it." I heard that same sentiment a dozen times. Everyone reasonably thought the episode was probably a harmless college prank. But they also thought it odd that Paul wouldn't just say so.

The thing that really seemed to bother them, though--and this was also true of every talk-radio caller--was Paul's refusal to debate Conway Monday night. No one could understand why he wouldn't want to take the stage. As one of them put it, borrowing a line from Sharron Angle, Paul needed to "man up" and face down the aggressor. I came away with the sense that if he doesn't, he'll pay a steep price and maybe even cost himself the race. The issue isn't Paul's Christianity, but his manhood. That's why I think he'll change his mind. Paul's campaign manager told reporters today that Paul will announce his decision tomorrow afternoon.     

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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