Did Aqua Buddha Backfire?

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 10:35 AM EDT

You probably saw the ad or at least heard about it: a bizarre 30-second spot sent onto the airwaves by Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate in Kentucky's bruising Senate race. Simply titled "Why?," the ad rips Rand Paul, the race's GOP candidate and tea party favorite, for his reported membership in a secret society that allegedly called the Bible "a hoax," and that tied up a college student and made her "bow down" before the "Aqua Buddha." (Read more about Paul's strange college daze, ahem, days here in GQ.) Playing into Paul's supposedly mysterious past, the ad ends by asking, with a Buddha and Paul sharing the frame, "Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?"

Here's the ad:

Trailing by a healthy margin for months, Conway needed—pardon the tired phrase—a game-changing move to seriously challenge Paul. Presumably Aqua Buddha was just that. But according to new polls, the candidate hurt most by the antics of Aqua Buddha was Conway himself.

A new Public Policy Polling survey puts Paul ahead of Conway by 13, the tea party darling's widest lead since he won his party's primary in May. More telling is Kentuckians' response to the Aqua Buddha ad itself, which PPP also measured.

Of the 62 percent of voters who saw the ad, 56 percent said it was inappropriate. Split by party, 72 percent of Republican disliked the ad, as did 41 percent of Democrats. As PPP's Dean Debnam put it, "Down by single digits until now, Jack Conway threw a Hail Mary with the 'Aqua Buddha' TV spot, and Rand Paul looks set to intercept it and return it for a touchdown next week."

Politics Daily's Walter Shapiro, reporting from Kentucky, found voters giving voice to the Aqua Buddha revulsion. He spoke to 26-year-old Obama supporter Emily Daniel who said the ad "really crossed the line." And then there's local school secretary Karen Crouch, who Shapiro also interviewed:

"The ad's pushing me towards Rand Paul. It's such a personal attack and he did it because Rand Paul had a lead in this race. Conway's desperate." Crouch, who was having lunch with her husband Larry, is a registered Republican with an independent streak. When I asked her about her 2008 presidential vote, she said, "Well, it wasn't McCain."