National headlines are on fire this morning after last night’s name calling session between Rand Paul and Jack Conway which ended with Paul refusing to shake Conway’s hand. I don’t blame him. Afterall, Paul came to this contest hoping it would be more like a chess game. Conway started a knife fight.
In the eyes of the nation focused on Kentucky this fall, the 300 people who gathered in Louisville to witness the debate have to look more like the crowd in some backwoods barn filled with dust, tobacco spit and cigar smoke where lovers of brutality got their perverse jollies watching a cockfight instead. Way to go guys.
It all started with a CN2 poll showing the race within the margin of error. With that Jack Conway smelled blood. He felt as if he had succeeded in damaging Paul’s charmed campaign by attacking him for being soft on crime (which he’s not).
Then Conway saw progress by attacking Rand Paul for supporting higher Medicare deductibles for seniors (he does not).
So Conway, emboldened by what he perceived on the basis of his internal polling and the one CN2 poll which confirmed his numbers, drew this simple conclusion: When the race was about the issues, Rand Paul was winning big, but, when the race became about Rand Paul, Conway seemed to be able to close the gap.
There are tried and true methods of winning elections in Kentucky, and character assassination has historically been a very effective weapon of last resort.
Time and time again well intentioned candidates, riding high on principles, buoyed by public enthusiasm over their proud declarations against negative campaigning, once sensing their potential defeat at the hands of a more ruthless opponent, have succumbed to the pressure, strapped on a sharp set of spurs and come in high, going for the throat in the closing days of their campaigns.
Rand Paul finds himself at that critical moment.
Conway believes that if he can raise enough questions about Paul’s past he might be able to distance Paul from enough voters to eek out a win. He senses that this late in the game, Paul is a true believer who will refuse to do “whatever it takes” to win, and who might even be willing to join the ranks of other true believers who wear their losses as a badge of honor.
There is no doubt that Conway’s latest ad attacking Rand Paul was intended to question Paul’s Christianity. Conway can keep saying until he is blue in the face that the ad only raised questions about Paul’s college days, and nothing about his faith. Yeah, right. Politics is where perception becomes reality. It’s a game where the message is secondary to the impression it leaves, and the penetration it gets. The impression of Conway’s ad questions Rand Paul’s faith. It is traditional, gutter level politics, period.
Now the question becomes, is this truly the year where traditional politics will be soundly rejected in favor of something new, or not? That is the gamble both men are making.
No doubt Conway represents the say anything, do anything progressive who senses that gaining a seat of power is the end goal, thus any means of getting there is justified.
Paul on the other hand is filled with big ideas which he likens to those of our founders. He senses that our nation needs a change of attitude, the restoration of that political ideology which carried us through our decades of greatness and he longs for a return to “the glory days”, that legendary time slightly more utopian perhaps than that in which we ever actually lived.
Along the way he has captured the attention of more people in his unorthodox way than anyone could have predicted in June of 2009. This latest flap is heading the same direction.
The headlines today are all about Rand Paul. Few if any are favorable to Conway and Paul stasnds a very good chance of getting the best of Conway over the issue by taking the high ground. But as one Conway supporter said, “Who cares what those folks in New York or on the blogs have to say. In Kentucky this stuff works.”
And he may be right. Maybe in October in Kentucky an ad about Rand Paul’s alleged college antics will dominate the talk over coffee at breakfast shops in small towns everywhere. Maybe the hard line democrats who sensed that their man might be in trouble will get energized by his vicious zeal. Maybe the voters who don’t read blogs, who don’t read papers and who get their voting instructions from the county patronage chief will start spreading the rumors Jack Conway started and work to get him a few more votes.
Or maybe Rand Paul will turn this one on Conway like he has so deftly turned so many other attacks on his challengers before. Perhaps when Jack Conway attacked Paul’s religion he crossed a line he shouldn’t have crossed and sealed his fate with the faithful once and for all.
No doubt, being a million dollars behind in the latest fund raising, Conway is about to go for broke. But he shouldn’t underestimate the ability of Paul to tap the sentiments of voters and use his preferred status with the media to turn that blade back on Conway.
You see, you don’t need to bring a knife to a knife fight if the other guy already has one. You just need to take his knife and gut him with it.
There are two weeks left until the election on November 2nd. While the outcome may not yet be certain, one thing is.
Between now and then, there will be blood.