Louisville, Ky. (WHAS11) - The national media is dubbing it the nastiest debate of the 2010 election. WHAS11's U.S. Senate debate between Rand Paul and Jack Conway has made headlines nationwide with Conway's "Aqua Buddha" attack ad the focus of attention.
Conway is getting an earful from some usually friendly voices. On Monday, pundit Chris Matthews told Conway that a religion test in an election is wrong. Tuesday, MSNBC's Mike Barnacle called the ad "repulsive," and "so over the top it's Saturday night live-ish," adding it makes people "cringe."
Despite the criticism, is the tactic working? In a survey taken on Monday by Rasmussen Reports, a pollster associated with Republicans, Conway has cut Paul's lead in half compared to the previous month, Paul 47 percent, Conway 42 percent.
And, a poll commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and conducted on Sunday and Monday, straddling the debate but after the ad was releases, shows Conway surging with a two point lead over Paul 49 percent to 47 percent.
If Conway was trying to turn off targeted voters -- it just might be working.
Conway appeared on NBC's Today show Tuesday morning.
"Did it cross a line?" asked host Matt Lauer, "Is it fair even in the increasingly dirty world of politics? Do you stand by it?"
"I'm not questioning his faith," Conway responded, "I'm questioning his actions, Matt."
Conway insisted again that the ad is not about Rand Paul's faith. But that's the impression left on many observors.
Lauer rephrased a question asked during the debate, if Conway was alleging that "Paul was not a Christian or a good Christian."
"Do you think Mr. Paul is a man of faith?" asked Lauer.
"I am not questioning his faith, Matt," Conway reiterated.
"That's not what I'm asking you. Do you think he is a man of faith?"
"I listen - I take him when he says that listen he's a Christian and I take him at that," Conway said.
But Conway says that's not the point. He says Paul hasn't denied the anonymous former Baylor classmate's allegations that Paul and a classmate tied her up and asked her to worship "a false idol, your God, the Aqua Buddha."
In a new interview with the Washington Post, the woman behind the Aqua Buddha story says --
"Yes, he was in a secret society, yes, he mocked religion, yes, the whole Aqua Buddha thing happened."
But the woman says the ad makes it sound "more ominous than it actually was."
"The way the person is talking, it sounds like [Paul] is some kind of evil-worshipping person who's a little bit more threatening than perhaps he really is."
"The ad is over the top. I'm disappointed that someone is making this into a central issue."
The author of the original Aqua Buddha article, Jason Zengerle, agrees - calling it "the most despicable ad of the year."
"It's the most despicable I've seen. Yeah. I just think you shouldn't be questuioning someone's religion," Zengerle said, "I think it's gross when conservatives question whether Obama is a Muslim and I think it's gross when Conway questions whether Paul is a real Christian."
Zengerle says Conway's ad and statements are misleading and over the top.
"It wasn't a kidnapping. It wasn't some weird cult about Aqua Buddha. It was in the context of college at Baylor."
"I think the Conway ad was over the line," Zengerle continued, "I also think that if Paul had just addressed this thing forthrightly at the beginning it would have defused the whole issue and this thing wouldn't have even been talked about right now."
Conway told the Associated Press that the ad could be taken off the air by the end of the week --adding it was only intended to run five to seven days. Conway defended the ad and said he doesn't feel pressured to take it down.