CONWAY SPARKS DISCUSSION WITH ‘AQUA BUDDHA’ AD…. Chris Cillizza asks today, “Did Jack Conway go too far?” He’s not the only one asking.

The issue is a new ad in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, launched by state Attorney General Jack Conway (D), and targeting right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R). The spot, released over the weekend, is rather odd: it goes after Paul’s controversial background, including the secret society he joined in college, which mocked Christianity, and Paul’s drug-induced fondness for the “Aqua Buddha.”

The ad has sparked a fair amount of criticism, even from the left, most notably this item from Jon Chait. But that in turn has generated some defenses, from Digby, Markos, and this item from Theda Skocpol:

I have a real problem with all the prissy condemnations coming from liberal commentators about Conway’s ad on Rand Paul’s youthful playing with contempt for Christianity. People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul’s extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows. This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a “requirement for public office” as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them,

One reason that Dems do not seem to be able to play hardball — in a viciously hardball political world — is that Dems often lack conviction or the will to be eloquently honest (for example, on taxes). But an equal problem is that when someone does play hardball, the rest of the prissy liberal Mugwumps tut-tut them about it.

I say, go for it, Jack Conway. Does anyone doubt that Paul and his supporters would have used similar publicly documented material against Conway (or even less material)?

I understand the point of those who disapprove of the ad, Candidates, especially Dems, aren’t supposed to go after rivals for their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

But having watched the Conway spot several times, I’m inclined to think a little too much is being made of this angle. Should questions of faith be off limits in attack ads? As a rule, probably. Does this get close to the line? Maybe. But the point of the spot seems to be that Rand Paul is a still largely unknown weirdo with a bizarre background and extremist ideology. And that happens to be true — Paul really is a still largely unknown weirdo with a bizarre background and extremist ideology.

For the record, I didn’t much care for the ad, not because I found it offensive or divisive, but because I found it unpersuasive, especially as a closing message in the race’s final two weeks. Not only does Rand Paul have far more serious vulnerabilities, I also have a hard time imagining why anyone would care about the odd antics of the man’s college years.

Maybe I’ve become desensitized in the midst of an ugly election season, but the Conway spot doesn’t strike me as that harsh. It’s not flagrantly dishonest — Lord knows we’ve had our share of those ads this year — and to Skocpol’s point, there’s no doubt in my mind that if the situations were reversed, and Conway’s religious background could be exploited in an attack ad, Paul and his party would be all over it.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.