Accusations of idol worship have not only emerged in a race for the U.S. Senate, but they seem to have erupted into a defining issue in the contest.

Democrat Jack Conway‘s ad that references Republican Rand Paul‘s alleged college pranks is being spun in nearly every possible way. Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has called the spot “very dangerous.” Conway has had to defend the ad on national TV (1,2). But while criticisms are coming from both sides of the aisle, there are those who praise Conway for “going there” in the campaign.

I have a real problem with all the prissy condemnations coming from liberal commentators about Conway’s ad on Rand Paul’s youthful playing with contempt for Christianity. People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul’s extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows. This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a “requirement for public office” as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them,

One reason that Dems do not seem to be able to play hardball — in a viciously hardball political world — is that Dems often lack conviction or the will to be eloquently honest (for example, on taxes). But an equal problem is that when someone does play hardball, the rest of the prissy liberal Mugwumps tut-tut them about it.

I say, go for it, Jack Conway. Does anyone doubt that Paul and his supporters would have used similar publicly documented material against Conway (or even less material)?

Paul isn’t free from criticism, either. A few pundits say his behavior at last weekend’s debate, and the fact that he may cancel the one remaining debate, shows weakness. Paul has accused Conway of “bearing false witness” and he has brought the Tea Party’s new “be a man” trope into yet another race. (Sarah Palin urged legislators to “man up” in Reno, Nevada this week, too.) Further, a few media-watching observers have pointed out Paul

Chris Cillizza compares the ad to one run by Elizabeth Dole in 2008 that questioned Dole’s opponent Kay Hagan‘s faith. That ad backfired, but Cillizza says the Aqua Buddha spot could be a deciding factor in the Paul/Conway race.

…it now seems clear that this ad could make or break the race — forcing voters to decide whether Paul’s college transgressions are fair game in the context of a political race or whether Conway went too far and, in so doing, made himself look like a desperate candidate looking for a Hail Mary political pass.

The other star of the ad, the woman who was allegedly tied up and told to worship the Aqua Buddha, has weighed in on the situation. She says the ad is over the top, but accurate, and it raises legitimate concerns.

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