By ROGER ALFORD
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 3:58 PM
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. -- A day after a winning a hard-fought U.S. Senate race, Republican Rand Paul said he was hopeful a religious attack that backfired on his opponent will head off similar strategies in future political races.
Nearly four out of five Kentuckians who voted in Tuesday's election said they felt Democrat Jack Conway unfairly attacked Paul by running a TV ad that asked why Paul was a member in college of a secret campus society that mocked Christians and claimed his god was "Aqua Buddha," according to exit polling conducted for The Associated Press.
Paul denounced the ad as false and chastised Conway for running it. The spot triggered a public outcry across the state and nation.
The Paul campaign aired an ad in response in which he said he keeps Christ in his heart. And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a past Republican presidential candidate and a Baptist minister, went on Christian radio calling for Conway to repent.
"I think that you shouldn't attack a person's faith, and I think it did backfire on them," Paul told the AP on Wednesday. "My hope is that when someone loses and that issue appears to have had an influence that maybe it discourages people from those attacks."
Paul, bolstered by tea party supporters angry with the Washington establishment, rose from relative obscurity as a small town eye doctor in Bowling Green to be elected to the Senate to replace the retiring Jim Bunning, a 79-year-old former major league baseball pitcher who opted not to seek a third term.
"The big mistake that turned what was going to be a comfortable win into a landslide win was the decision of Conway to try to inject religion into the campaign," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "That was the mistake the broke it open. Rand Paul would have won anyway, but that had an impact on the margin."
Appearing relaxed and speaking more candidly than he had since his primary campaign, Paul spent Wednesday morning doing media interviews while his wife, Kelley, prepared to leave on vacation to an undisclosed location.
When asked about the role that he felt God had in his victory, Paul was reserved.
"I do see God in everyday life and everything that happens," Paul said. "I try not to claim that he's responsible for a victory or things like that. I never have been a big fan of people who pray for victory in a football game or a political contest. I think God's involvement in our life is maybe a little more subtle than promoting someone's victory."
The relevance of religion in the race was not surprising for many. Don Swarthout, president of the Kentucky nonprofit group Christians Reviving America's Values, said before Election Day he was surprised religion wasn't a bigger issue in the race.
"Most of the people in this country are religious and have Christian leanings," said Pentecostal preacher and Christian broadcaster Gene Huff, one of about 60 people who crowded into Laurel County Republican Headquarters on Saturday for a Paul political rally. "They tend to vote for people who share their values."
A confident Paul avoided any mention of religion in a brief speech to supporters on Saturday, instead appealing for them to get their friends and neighbors to the polls on Tuesday. "It's not over till it's over," he said.
Paul, a Presbyterian, has harped primarily on fiscal issues, raging about the national debt, burdensome taxes and government overspending. Conway, a Catholic, made job creation and workplace safety top issues in the race.
Immediately after his primary win, Paul suffered through a series of gaffes when he expressed misgivings about how the Civil Rights Act bans racial discrimination by private businesses. He later said he abhors discrimination and would have voted for the 1964 law. He also drew criticism for decrying Obama's harsh rhetoric against BP over the Gulf oil spill as "really un-American."
Paul said Wednesday his positions on those issues were blown out of proportion by bloggers and mainline journalists alike.
"You can get in sort of a maelstrom where everybody just piles on," he said. "And it just goes on and on and on, and you lose track of the truth."