Democrat Jack Conway's aggressive television ad raising questions about opponent Rand Paul's religious faith could hurt Conway more than it helps him at a crucial time in the U.S. Senate race, political observers said Monday.
The 30-second ad refers to Paul's membership in a secret society at Baylor University that mocked Christianity in satirical articles and was banned from the Baptist-affiliated school for being sacrilegious.
It also mentions another college incident in which a woman said Paul, as part of an ill-conceived prank, tried to get her to smoke pot, then took her to a creek outside town, told her he worshiped "Aqua Buddha," and made her bow down.
There are potential pluses for Conway in the ad, observers said, including that it could cause questions about Paul in this conservative state where religion is important to many people. It also could reinforce arguments that Paul and his views are extreme.
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But observers said the ad and resulting fallout could cost Conway more than he gains.
"It's a real roll of the dice," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.
Among the potential pitfalls is that many people will perceive the ad as too personal or even desperate — not how a candidate wants to appear with less than two weeks until Election Day, observers said.
Many people don't see questioning a candidate's religious faith as appropriate, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
"It could bounce back and burn him," Voss said. "I expect Conway is going to regret having this go out under his name."
Rothenberg said it's not unusual for candidates to interject religion into campaigns. They often do that, however, by talking about their faith or about issues that highlight their faith, he said.
Conway's ad goes beyond the norm.
"This is a particularly aggressive, confrontational, combative TV ad," he said. "It's dangerous, certainly, because it seems so heavy-handed."
Some voters won't put much stock in the ad because it uses material from 30 years ago, observers said.
Conway's campaign did not respond to a Herald-Leader question on why he thought it was important to run the ad or on his reaction to the backlash.
However, the campaign did forward a story from FactCheck.org, which said the ad's most dramatic claims that Paul's college society mocked Christianity and that he took part in a weird prank involving "Aqua Buddha" were well-documented.
But Rothenberg said that even if everything in the ad is true, voters might see it as over the top and say, "Give me a break."
The ad probably indicates Conway had poll data showing he needed to try something dramatic to overtake Paul, analysts said.
"Conway was running out of time," Voss said.
Several said the ad risks changing the focus of the race in a way that won't help Conway a great deal.
Conway had scored points with some recent ads focused on policy issues, such as one saying Paul favors a $2,000 Medicare deductible, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
But Monday, everyone "was talking about whether the ad went too far," Sabato said.
"Mainly, it's changing the subject to less helpful issues," Sabato said.
He said he didn't see the ad as being terribly effective. "I'd be surprised if this brings Paul down," he said.
On the other hand, the highly personal commercial could let Paul claim the moral high ground with an argument that he is being unfairly attacked.
"Campaigns are really about what narrative people buy into," said Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University. "That's going to be the Paul campaign's narrative."
Paul already has started building that story, telling Conway during a debate Sunday night that his behavior was shameful.
Paul also started a response ad in which he uses the language of religion, saying he "keeps Christ in his heart" while accusing Conway of bearing "false witness."
Jim Cauley, a Democratic political consultant, said he thought Paul "parried very effectively" with the ad.
The Conway ad was getting a lot of attention even outside Kentucky.
Republicans were quick to distribute stories from a variety of media outlets in which people suggested Conway had made a mistake.
One was an MSNBC interview Monday in which Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from neighboring Missouri, called the ad "very dangerous" and said it came close to crossing the line.
"Candidates who are behind at the end reach and sometimes they overreach," McCaskill said in the interview.
However, she also called Paul thin-skinned and extreme, and reiterated that she thinks Conway can win.
During an appearance Monday afternoon on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews, Conway was excoriated by the liberal-leaning host.
"Should I ask you questions about the Bible, what you believe?" Matthews said to Conway. "Should I start asking you questions (about) whether you believe in the seven days of creation, whether you believe in angels?"
Analysts agreed that negative ads suppress voter turnout, but there were differing opinions on which candidate that hurts more.
One key question is "how the people in the middle respond," said Lasley.
How Paul handles the issue will also influence how it plays out.
On Sunday night, he refused to shake hands with Conway, Lasley noted.
"Does it come off looking small?" he asked.
For his part, Paul said he thinks reaction to the ad will be pivotal.
"I think this is going to move us up over the top," he said Monday in an interview on The Sean Hannity Show.