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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Kentucky is choosing a senator this fall to succeed retiring Republican Jim Bunning. Some months ago, we heard from the Tea Party favorite who upset the state's GOP establishment by winning the primary, Rand Paul.

Today, Paul's Democratic opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who joins us from Lexington. Welcome to the program, Mr. Conway.

Mr. JACK CONWAY (Attorney General, Kentucky): Well, thank you for having me, Robert. It's my pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And I'm going to start with your very controversial campaign commercial, which we're going to hear right now. It's called "Why?"

(Soundbite of political ad)

Mr. CONWAY: I'm Jack Conway. I approve this message.

Unidentified Man: Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a hoax that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was Aqua Buddha? Why does Rand Paul now want to end all federal faith-based initiatives, and even end the deduction for religious charities? Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?

SIEGEL: Mr. Conway, my question is why? Why launch an attack ad on something your opponent did in college more than 25 years ago and seems to question the depths of his Christian faith?

Mr. CONWAY: I'm not questioning his faith, Robert, I'm questioning his actions. Rand Paul joined a group when he was in college, and this group had been banned by the president of Baylor because it, quote, "made fun of Christianity and Christ." Why would you go and purposefully join a group that's known for mocking people of faith? I don't think it's ever appropriate to mock people of faith. I don't think it's ever appropriate to tie a woman up and ask her to kneel down and worship a false idol.

And, you know, Rand Paul has not denied these charges. And these stories have been printed in six very reputable media outlets. And when asked questions about them, he refuses to answer.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you, first of all, about tying up the woman. She was described anonymously in GQ in an article and then a writer for The Washington Post spoke with her. Still, her name was not disclosed. And she said, according to the reporter, the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. They didn't force me. She says, I went along because they were my friends. There was an implicit degree of cooperation in the whole thing. I felt like I was being hazed.

You're talking about what may have been, it seems, a rather tasteless college hazing prank, no?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, what she also said in that second follow-up story in The Washington Post is that the thing was weird. And because of it she ended her friendship with Rand Paul. So, and you asked me earlier about his college days, he also wrote prolifically to his student newspaper when he was at Baylor. And he wrote things like when are two people ever equal? He was questioning whether or not we should have laws that say thou shalt not be prejudiced in business transactions.

He said that women don't need any type of equal rights protection in the law. So, if you look at his writings in college, you can draw a straight line to the rather strange positions he's taken this summer and fall on where he's questioned fundamental provisions of the Civil Rights Act. He's questioned the Americans with Disabilities Act. He's questioned federal involvement in mine safety. There's a common strain in his views.

SIEGEL: But his position on mine safety and what he says about - what he said on this program about the Americans with Disabilities Act, those are contemporary positions he's taken. Going back to his pot-smoking days at Baylor more than a quarter of a century ago just doesn't seem that germane to a race for Senate today. I mean are you running on your adolescence when you run for Senate?

Mr. CONWAY: No, you're not running on your adolescence, but people have to be accountable for their own actions.

SIEGEL: Let's go on to other matters. Rand Paul says he wants to repeal President Obama's health care plan. You said you would amend it. What in the health care law needs fixing? What should be changed?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, there's a big distinction on this issue. I'm for fixing it and improving it and Rand Paul is for repealing it. He's also called for a $2,000 deductible for Medicare and our seniors just can't afford that. The current deductible is about $155.

Here's what I would do. I would allow for Medicare to engage in both purchasing to negotiate for lower prescription prices the way that our Medicaid program does and the way the VA does. If we were to do that, that would be about $200 billion in savings.

SIEGEL: But that savings, to enable Medicare, to bargain with the drug companies on behalf of Medicare recipients, that was beyond what President Obama and the Democrats were able to get into a bill when they had 60 and then 59 votes in the U.S. Senate. Is it fair to say that however desirable that might be it just isn't going to happen?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, I think that they took it off the table because they didn't want to engage the pharmaceutical companies in a fight. You know, as the attorney general of the commonwealth of Kentucky, I've taken on the pharmaceutical companies. And we caught them not telling the truth about what their average wholesale price was in negotiating for lower prices with state Medicaid.

I took them on and Medicaid fraud collections are up over 600 percent since I've become the attorney general of Kentucky. So, I do think it's important when you're seeking savings that we go ahead and take them on and fight the fights that are worth fighting.

SIEGEL: On the question of the Bush era tax cuts, should they all be extended, in your view, or should they only be extended as President Obama proposes for those who make under $250,000 a year, individuals, or should they be extended for a year or two and then phased out?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, I think they should be extended for some period of time. I just think that right now...

SIEGEL: For everyone?

Mr. CONWAY: For everyone. I think right now as we come out of a recession, with precarious growth and not enough jobs being created, I just don't think right now is any time to be raising taxes.

SIEGEL: Your debate with Rand Paul the other day ended on a chilly note. No handshake. Mr. Paul suggesting he might not return. This was all about the accusations that go back to his days in college. What do you make of those who look at your "Why?" commercial or hear it and say that confirms that you're down in the polls and you got to throw a Hail Mary here? I don't say Hail Mary in any offensive way disparaging anyone's faith.

Mr. CONWAY: No, Robert. This race has been a dead heat. It's been a dead heat for some number of weeks and we have all the momentum.

SIEGEL: The public polls I think have you down a few points.

Mr. CONWAY: Well, the last public poll I think had us within the margin of error. It was just a couple points. And I've heard dead heat last couple of weeks.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Conway, good to talk with you.

Mr. CONWAY: All right, thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for Senate. No word yet on whether Rand Paul will attend that next debate despite several phone calls we placed to his campaign.

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