LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul angrily accused Democratic rival Jack Conway of descending "into the gutter" with a TV ad questioning Paul's faith and demanded an apology during a Sunday night debate that turned bitterly personal.
Paul denounced the commercial during his opening statement and quoted Scripture to deflect the attack while calling himself a "pro-life Christian." Conway offered no apology and even repeated the accusations in his ad, which started airing statewide Friday night.
"Those who stoop to the level of attacking a man's religious beliefs to gain higher office, I believe that they should remember that it does not profit a man to gain the world if he loses his soul in the process," Paul said.
The candidates wrangled over health care, taxes, entitlements and other issues, but the debate's defining exchange came in the opening minutes at the University of Louisville.
The issue flared again in the closing moments, when Paul declared he would not shake Conway's hand afterward, stating: "I will not be associated with someone who attacks my religion."
"We will try to keep the debate on a higher tone," Paul said. "I hope you will leave my church, my family and my religion out of it."
Paul walked past Conway without offering his hand or making eye contact with his Democratic opponent.
The ad is based on published reports from an anonymous woman who claims Paul was a member of a secret society when he attended Baylor University. Paul has dismissed the reports as "ridiculous."
A narrator in the ad repeats the claims from the woman, asking why Paul, while in college, tied her up and told her to worship an idol called "Aqua Buddha."
Conway, the state's attorney general, defended the attacks during their contentious exchange.
"Why did he freely join a group known for mocking, for making fun of people with faith?" Conway asked. "And secondly, when is it ever a good idea to tie up a woman and ask her to kneel before a false idol, your god, which you call Aqua Buddha?"
Paul said he was disheartened that the race had turned so personal.
"We have serious problems in our country ... and he's descended into the gutter to attack my Christian beliefs," said Paul, a Bowling Green eye doctor. Paul and his family attend a Presbyterian church in Bowling Green, where his wife serves as a deacon.
"Jack, you should be ashamed of yourself. You should apologize. Have you no decency? Have you no shame?"
During the debate, Conway kept up his favorite attack lines, accusing Paul of being out of touch with Kentucky's drug problems and claiming Paul supports a $2,000 deductible for Medicare recipients – comments Paul was caught making on videotape shown on YouTube. Paul has said the comment was taken out of context, and that he doesn't support such a high deductible.
Paul, a tea party favorite, advocated his belief in limited government and the free market.
Paul and Conway are competing for the job of retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning.
Conway campaign: http://www.jackconway.org/
Paul campaign: http://www.randpaul2010.com/