Nothing was going to spoil Linda McMahon’s good mood, not on the sunny day that transformed her from a political curiosity into the Republican frontrunner for U.S. Senate.
Not unexpected questions from a reporter about gay rights, which produced a commitment to allow gays to openly serve in the military and an expression of her reservations about the Defense of Marriage Act.
Not familiar queries about a long-ago bankruptcy, her husband’s criminal trial, their wrestling company’s nagging associations with steroid abuse or the naughty name of their boat, “Sexy Bitch.”
Her multi-million dollar investment in a new political career just produced its first returns: a poll showing a stunning 20-point swing in her U.S. Senate race, turning a 10-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
“I just am feeling great momentum, good response from the groups I am meeting with and speaking to,” McMahon said during an hour-long interview at her headquarters in West Hartford. “So the poll for me today was a good affirmation of that continuing momentum.”
McMahon smiled broadly.
It is her default facial expression on the campaign trail, faced with good times or bad, such as the latest Quinnipiac poll — or being accused on live television of “making money off the blood” of wrestlers.
Lawrence O’Donnell discovered that last month on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” as he peppered McMahon with questions and accusations about steroids. The host, Joe Scarborough, seemed taken aback.
McMahon just stared. And smiled.
“It’s fiction. It’s a soap opera,” McMahon finally said of her old wrestling world, where she once kneed a performer in the groin. Then she smiled again and added, “Except if I give you a body slam this morning. That’d be for real.”
Her chief rival for the GOP nomination, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, whose previous careers included being a soldier and a spy, also has learned that McMahon does not easily rattle or deviate from talking points that typically keep her on safe ground, talking about her dislike of deficit spending.
Over the past months, Simmons’ campaign has fired volley after volley about steroids and the programming excesses of World Wrestling Entertainment.
“Simulated rape as entertainment?” was the question the Simmons campaign posed Thursday about past WWE programming, which has been toned down in recent years. “‘Unconscionable ‘says woman who works with convicted sex offenders.”
Implicit in Simmons’ attacks is an exasperated question to fellow Republicans: Are you really going to nominate the matriarch of the McMahon clan, the founders and owners of the WWE, an entertainment powerhouse where fiction and reality meet at the McMahon’s mansion in Greenwich and corporate headquarters in Stamford?
Her husband, Vince McMahon, is the company chairman and a regular performer. They met in their native North Carolina when she was 13 and he was 16. Their daughter Stephanie is married to a WWE wrestler, Triple H, a bit of storyline that turned real. And their son, Shane, also has been a WWE executive and wrestler.
On TV, Vince McMahon plays the heavy, still thickly muscled at 64, the result of obsessive workouts and a protein-rich diet, according to his wife. In the real world, he was tried and acquitted in federal court in New York in the 1994 on charges that he distributed steroids to his wrestlers.
“A jury of our peers found us innocent, as we knew we were going into it,” said Linda McMahon, who was not a defendant. “That was a very hard process to go through.”
In response to a question, she acknowledged that her campaign has considered making a public presentation on steroids, possibly making her husband and other WWE officials and doctors available for questions.
“It’s something we talk about internally,” McMahon said. “Should we have that kind of a presentation or continue referring a lot of these kinds of questions to WWE, who are now in a better position to respond to it?”
But McMahon typically steers the topic of steroids to one of her campaign talking points: professional wrestling is entertainment, not sport. Its performers have no incentive to use steroids, she said.
Her answer ignores the obvious commercial value of her wrestlers bulking up for their theatrical appeal. Or that past steroid use by WWE wrestlers is not disputed.
“There is not an incentive to use steroids in WWE. The reason I bring up the fact it is entertainment is because a performer’s popularity in WWE is not relative to size,” she said. “It is the charisma. It is the story line. It’s the soap opera that runs every week. It’s the connection with the audience. It’s what goes on back stage.”
Gov. M. Jodi Rell appointed McMahon to the State Board of Education last year, raising a few eyebrows at the General Assembly, given some of the content of WWE shows. But she sailed through a confirmation hearing.
Late last spring or early summer, McMahon said, she suddenly was inspired to think about running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Christopher J. Dodd, whom she recognized as a man on the ropes. Deficit spending was killing the economy, she said.
McMahon acknowledged she is no policy wonk, nor is she steeped in the history of the U.S. Senate. She said she currently is reading “The Looming Tower,” the Pulitzer-winning narrative history of Islamic fundamentalism, but quickly added it was at the suggestion of her communication director, Ed Patru.
“I like to escape when I read and just read fiction, Michael Crichton books,” she said. “I just love Michael Crichton.”
Her own story reads like fiction. It’s a story line that would have seemed preposterous last fall, even on the WWE.
But over the past two months, McMahon has been on television every day and night with biographical commercials touting her modest roots and her family’s comeback from bankruptcy in the 1970s to business success and personal wealth today, including homes in Greenwich, Manhattan and Boca Raton, Fla.
She is funding her campaign herself, and expects to eventually spend $50 million, more than double the previous record set in 2006, when U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and Ned Lamont each spent about $20 million.
Suddenly, the story line is no longer preposterous.
McMahon is leading Simmons, 44 percent to 34 percent, with most of her support coming from women, conservatives and self-described backers of the anti-government Tea Party movement, according to Quinnipiac.
The poll did find that Republican voters were not necessarily impressed with her background as the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, a post she resigned last fall. And it did detect some antipathy toward professional wrestling among Republicans, who never have quite seen a candidate like McMahon.
“I’m just not hearing that when I am out in the state talking with people,” McMahon said of the reservations about wrestling. “I don’t care what meeting I’m at.”
Of course, she smiled.
Her platform is simple: She opposes health-care reform as too expensive, favors tax credits to help business and insists that the federal government immediately cease deficit spending, though she refuses to say how that might be accomplished.
On her web site, her major idea about reforming government is: “Lawmakers have to read the bills before they vote on them.” Congress should cease voting on complicated legislation, such as the Wall Street bailout, without it first being posted online for public review, she said.
McMahon said she admired Sen. Jim Bunning’s recent stand against deficit spending. Using the Senate’s arcane rules and customs, the Kentucky Republican single-handedly delayed an extension of unemployment benefits.
“When Bunning raised that issue, I thought, ‘That was brave.’ I thought that was really, very brave. It’s hard in a time when so many people are out of work, but I thought that was a very brave stance to take,” she said.
But McMahon refused to say if she would have supported him or joined other Republicans in telling him to end what threatened to become a P.R. disaster for the GOP. Bunning finally relented.
“I think he did stand up and take a stand,” she said.
But would you?
“If I felt as strongly about an issue as he did about that,” she replied.
McMahon laughed when her interviewer concluded she was not going to answer the question.
“I did answer it,” she said. “You might not like my answer, but that was my answer.”
“What you need that you don’t know about me is that I am a woman of conviction, and I study things, I am deliberative,” McMahon said. “I really want to understand and know what the issues are and how they impact people. And then make a decision based on that. And listening and learning.”
She was asked if she had any convictions about Medicare, which is projected to become insolvent in 2017 if costs are not controlled.
“Medicare, I think, is part of this whole total health care reform that we have to look at. I don’t think it’s like picking one thing out of it at a time,” McMahon said.
McMahon, of course, is hardly alone among candidates in avoiding committing herself to cutting Medicare, Social Security, defense spending or any of the other programs that drive up federal spending. There is a reason Medicare and Social Security are known as third-rail issues: touch them, and die.
“I don’t want to take any benefits away from seniors,” she said.
McMahon describes herself as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. She favors abortion rights and, as it emerged during the interview, gay rights.
“I don’t think we should have discrimination. My vote would be that we don’t have ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ But I think it ought to be implemented in a very cautious way,” she said.
McMahon initially hedged when asked about the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law signed by President Clinton that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. It also allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal, such as Connecticut.
“I do think it’s a state’s right issue,” she said. But when pressed, McMahon said, “I don’t think there should be a federal law.”
Her colorful husband has been AWOL from the campaign. Her daughter accompanied her to a televised debate, but Vince apparently has been deemed a distraction. Will he be seen anytime soon?
“Sure. Just turn on RAW,” McMahon said, referring to one of the WWE televised franchises. “He was on Monday night.”