LOUISVILLE — A debate filled with unabashed personal attacks concluded Sunday night with Republican Rand Paul briskly brushing past Democrat Jack Conway, refusing to shake the hand of an opponent who raised questions about his religious beliefs.
"Jack, have you no decency? Have you no shame?" Paul asked Conway during the fourth of five scheduled debates between Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates.
Paul said Conway's actions were "a disgrace" that should disqualify Conway from the heated contest Kentuckians will decide Nov. 2.
Paul's initial comments in the debate focused on a Conway TV ad that began airing over the weekend that says that while in college at Baylor University, Paul was in a secret brotherhood that mocked Christianity. It also alleged that he tied up a woman while in college and forced her to bow down to a god named "Aqua Buddha."
The ad is based on articles about Paul's days at Baylor that have appeared in GQ magazine, The Washington Post and Politico.com in recent weeks and months.
The ad has caused the race to descend "into the gutter," said Paul, who described himself as "a pro-life Christian." He recited biblical Scripture from the Book of Mark, asking Conway what does it profit a man to gain the world if he loses his soul?
Conway said the ad raises legitimate questions about Paul's values and repeatedly challenged Paul to answer two questions: Why did he join a college society, the NoZe Brotherhood, that mocked Christianity, and when is it appropriate to tie up a woman and make her bow down to "Aqua Buddha"?
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon making his first bid for public office, did not answer Conway's questions. Instead, he suggested people could tell Conway, the state's attorney general, was lying because his lips were moving.
Paul said he did not know how to respond to anonymous accusations about his college days and suggested that Conway "should stand up and be a man." The identity of the woman who was allegedly tied up by Paul during college was not revealed by GQ or The Washington Post.
Paul added that Conway's questions were similar to the ages-old loaded question of when did a husband stop beating his wife.
"You demean the state of Kentucky. You embarrass yourself," said Paul, who is a member of The Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green, where his wife, Kelley, is a deacon.
Paul's campaign launched a counter TV ad Sunday night called "False Witness." The 30-second ad says, "Rand Paul keeps Christ in his heart and in the life he shares with his wife and three boys. Don't be fooled by Conway's desperate attack."
The controversy about Paul's religious beliefs surfaced in August, when GQ reported that Baylor's president had called the NoZe Brotherhood "grossly sacrilegious."
Last week, the political news Web site Politico said the society called the Bible "a hoax" and quoted a former society member, William John Green, who said Paul "made fun of Baptists."
In an earlier report in GQ, a woman said Paul "blindfolded me, tied me up ... told me their god was 'Aqua Buddha' and that I needed to bow down and worship him."
She called Paul's actions "sadistic." In a later report by The Washington Post, the woman said she was not kidnapped in the legal sense and that the event was "blown out of proportion."
Conway's campaign has said Conway is a Catholic who attends church with his wife, Elizabeth, who is an Episcopalian.
Major issues in the race such as Medicare and education took a back seat in Sunday night's debate to the controversy over the Conway ad.
Conway tried to pound Paul for suggesting future Medicare recipients should pay a $2,000 deductible and for playing down the harm of illegal drugs in Kentucky.
Paul, as he has done previously, claimed that Conway was taking his comments out of context.
He maintained that he has been consistent on the issues. "Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper," he said.
But Conway said Paul has changed his positions on civil rights, mine safety laws and Medicare deductibles simply to curry votes.
Conway derided Paul for calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, saying it could hurt students who depend on federal aid to go to college.
Paul said functions of various federal departments could stay but the government needs to be trimmed.
In response to a question, Paul said he has never said Social Security is unconstitutional. Conway said Paul was not telling the truth.
On the issue of war in Afghanistan, Conway said the United States should try to make the country more stable and rid it of terrorists.
Paul said he would have voted to declare war in Afghanistan.
On the issue of illegal drugs, Conway noted that U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, has expressed disappointment that Paul is not willing to say he will back federal funding for the anti-drug program Operation UNITE.
Paul said he wants more input on placing the fight on drugs in the hands of local government.
The two candidates did agree on not cutting funds for the Fort Knox military base and for letting veterans decide where the new veterans' hospital should be built in Louisville.
The debate was in front of about 300 people in the University of Louisville's Bigelow Hall. It was broadcast live on C-SPAN and several Kentucky television stations, and covered by state, national and international media.
Moderator for Sunday night's hourlong debate was Mark Hebert, U of L's director of media relations. The journalists were Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal, Greg Stotelmyer of Lexington's WTVQ-TV, Joe Arnold of Louisville's WHAS-TV and Gene Birk of Bowling Green's WBKO-TV.
The fifth and final debate is scheduled for Oct. 25 on the Kentucky Educational Television network. Host Bill Goodman is to ask questions of the two candidates.
Reach Jack Brammer in the Herald-Leader's Frankfort bureau at (502) 227-1198.