Rand Paul, Jack Conway Get Personal at Kentucky Senate Debate

Tea Party supporters roughed up a liberal protester—and stepped on her head—outside the Kentucky Senate debate last night. Benjamin Sarlin reports on the maddest debate yet. Watch the video below. Plus, the Election Oracle reports Rand Paul has an 80 percent chance of winning .

A Tea Party supporter admitted to stepping on the head of a liberal protester— giving her a concussion—outside the Kentucky Senate debate last night. Benjamin Sarlin reports on the maddest debate yet. Watch the video below. Plus, the Election Oracle reports Rand Paul has an 80 percent chance of winning.

Kentucky Senate candidates Rand Paul and Jack Conway traded barbs Monday night in a debate that nearly didn’t happen. Upset over Conway’s attack ads about an incident in college in which Paul reportedly tied up a classmate and demanded she worship “ Aqua Buddha,” Paul pointedly refused to shake hands with his opponent in their previous meeting and threatened to drop out of the latest event entirely.

Moderator Bill Goodman eased Paul and Conway into Monday’s debate slowly, beginning with several rounds of feel-good, tension-reducing questions about their favorite teachers, current fiction reading list (Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible for Paul, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code for Conway), and favorite Kentucky state park.

While there was more focus on policy this time around, the same tensions kept bubbling up from the last debate. After Paul said “people with racehorses” might have to pay higher Medicare costs one day (Conway owns one), his Democratic opponent jokingly retorted that “Kentuckians know you don’t attack a man’s dog and you don’t attack a man’s horse.” Paul, deadly serious, interrupted him: “But you can attack a man’s religion, right?” Conway replied: “I questioned your actions, not your faith.”

But the sniping inside the debate was nothing compared to the horrifying scene outside, where a Conway supporter was brutally attacked by a Paul supporter, who threw her to the curb and then stomped on hear head.

Samuel P. Jacobs: Nikki Haley Hangs TightThe Republican did his best to tie Conway to President Obama, never a popular figure in Kentucky, and offered frequent attacks on health-care legislation and stimulus spending.

“This election is about which agenda do you want,” he said. “Do you want President Obama’s agenda that believes in the government as this mode of stimulus?”

Conway did his best to put some distance between himself and the national party, calling himself a “different kind of Democrat” and saying he “would like to fix” the health-care law. He also said he took issue with Obama on foreign policy, where he said the administration didn’t do enough to get Pakistan to help with the war in Afghanistan.

Midterm Debate Video HighlightsWhat If Barney Frank Loses?Conway, as he has in his ads and previous statements, made Paul’s libertarian leanings a key part of his argument, blasting him for his call for an end to the Department of Education, his criticism of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and his opposition to provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also went after Paul for suggesting that seniors may one day need to pay higher deductibles on Medicare—a rare instance of a GOP candidate proposing specific sacrifices to cut entitlement spending—and for his support for a nationwide 23 percent sales tax in lieu of income tax.

Paul finished the debate with a couple of jabs at McConnell. “I think both parties are untrustworthy,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats have done a poor job of controlling spending.”

Paul took a question from one caller who accused him of flip-flopping on many of these positions. He repeated his now-frequent claim that he never said he disagreed with the Civil Rights Act despite multiple interviews in which he heavily criticized its anti-segregation provisions and said he “never… said anything about being opposed to the ADA,” despite telling reporters that the law went too far in some cases.

In general, he sought to present himself as a reasonable, if outsider, alternative to the Democrats.

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“The things I talk about are actually very mainstream,” he said at one point.

Paul—who has an 80 percent likelihood of winning, according to The Daily Beast’s Election Oracle—has come a long way from his first days as the Republican nominee, when many of these oft-criticized positions came out in interviews. In addition to walking back some of his early statements on issues like the Civil Rights Act and ADA, Paul has embraced many of the national Republicans he ran against in his primary. After threatening not to support Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, as majority leader if the GOP takes over the chamber, he recently announced he would back McConnell. He’s also held fundraisers with lawmakers who voted for the bank bailout, something he pointedly refused to do during the primary.

“He has definitely embraced more mainstream, establishment interests,” said Jasmine Farrier, a professor of American government at the University of Louisville.

Andrew Ian Dodge, coordinator for the Maine Tea Party Patriots, said he wasn’t surprised to see Paul soften his tone to some degree.

“I am rather pleased anyone like Rand Paul has a shot at the Senate,” Dodge said. “Anyone that didn’t expect him to tack to the center in his quest to be senator is naive.”

Still, Paul finished the debate with at least a couple of indirect jabs at McConnell.

“I think both parties are untrustworthy,” he said at one point. “Republicans and Democrats have done a poor job of controlling spending.”

He also slyly responded to a question about his favorite Kentucky politician by waxing poetic on Sen. Jim Bunning, the retiring lawmaker who was reportedly forced into retirement by McConnell and led a one-man campaign this year to block unemployment benefits.

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.