On comfortable turf, Blumenthal regains political equilibrium

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal stepped before two television cameras Wednesday to talk about his latest investigation, an inquiry into how much a pharmacy chain charges the state’s Medicaid program for drugs.

On Monday, Blumenthal stood at the same battered lectern in his office, where he has held hundreds of press conferences, to announce a multi-state investigation into Google’s collection of personal internet data.

It is a routine that has served Blumenthal well over 20 years as attorney general, earning him the highest job approval rating of any elected official in Connecticut. And it has helped him through a crisis as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate.

“He’s just doing what he’s always done,” said Mindy Myers, Blumenthal’s campaign manager.

In two Quinnipiac polls taken since Blumenthal apologized for misstatements about his Vietnam-era military record, his job approval rating remains at 73 percent, and 66 percent of respondents say he cares about the needs and problems of people like them.

“It is tough to change the perceptions of a hugely popular incumbent,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director.

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A familiar place for Richard Blumenthal. (Mark Pazniokas)

Blumenthal has regained his equilibrium as the campaign of his leading Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, has nearly gone dormant — a period that will end today with a new television ad. Since winning the GOP endorsement May 21, McMahon had stopped airing television ads and has had no high-profile campaign appearances.

• Analysis of new McMahon ad •

“It’s a transitional phase in the race,” said Ed Patru, McMahon’s communications strategist. “We had effectively moved from a scenario where we were categorically focused on the convention.”

McMahon still faces a primary from Peter Schiff, an economist and cable-television commentator, but she led Schiff, 45 percent to 13 percent, in a Quinnipiac poll two weeks ago. Rob Simmons, whose campaign is inactive, had 29 percent.

Patru said the McMahon campaign is taking nothing for granted in the primary, but its focus soon will be Blumenthal and the general election.

“It’ll be a very aggressive campaign.  I think you’ll begin to see some very substantive steps taken in the very near future,” Patru said Thursday.

On Friday, McMahon released a new television ad featuring her time as a World Wrestling Entertainment executive and performer. It shows her in the ring.

“That isn’t real, but our problems are. Connecticut families are hurting. We re losing jobs because Washington politicians are spending money we don’t have,” she says.

The ad says Connecticut ranks near the bottom in job creation and calls for spending discipline in Washington, including a balanced budget amendment,

“We can’t stop the spending and the fix the mess if we send another big government politician to Washington,” she says. “It’s time to shake things up. It’s time for something different.”

Patru said Friday morning the ad will be on the air throughout Connecticut by mid-day.

“It’s a major buy,” he said.

McMahon can afford such media buys on the strength of her willingness to spend up to $50 million of her own money on the race, more than double any previous campaign in Connecticut. Even with those resources, though, some analysts say that McMahon’s task may be nearly impossible.

Jonathan Pelto, a former political director for the Democratic Party, said Blumenthal’s image has been built over 20 years, and his support comes from many constituency groups.

“There can be slippage in one area and he can still do just fine,” Pelto said. “Even more extraordinary is the overwhelmingly favorable image and name recognition. It helps explain why the Vietnam thing didn’t stick.”

Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman, said he might agree if this were a normal political year, not a time when being part of the political establishment is a liability.

“Here he is now in probably the most hostile environment in my lifetime for members of the political class,” Healy said. “If this was a regular year, I’d tell you even with the money, it would be tough” for McMahon to close the gap. Healy said McMahon still has a difficult challenge, but not an impossible one.

Healy said the challenge for Republicans will be to get Blumenthal in settings other than his familiar press conferences.

“When he doesn’t have the trappings of his office, and he is flying without a net, he is a very average politician,” Healy said.

In an early televised debate with his only Democratic challenger, who withdrew at the convention, Blumenthal was on the defensive when challenged about his record as an activist attorney general.

Blumenthal made a gaffe, insisting that his lawsuits against businesses actually created jobs by leveling the playing field for lawful companies. But he no longer is defensive about a record that has made him the state’s most popular Democrat.

With the investigation he announced Wednesday, Blumenthal said he is working with the support of Gov. M. Jodi Rell to make sure that the state’s Medicaid program is not overpaying for drugs. In the case of Google, he said he protecting residents against a loss of privacy.

The failure of Washington to protect consumers from the implosion of financial institutions or the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico helps make the case for government oversight of industry.

“The failure to hold BP accountable certainly helped to enable the disaster that occurred,” he said. “One of the points I’ve made is Washington has failed to heed and hear what matters to people, and here’s an example, along with financial regulatory enforcement, where government failed. And there were real life consequences.”

Blumenthal said he can’t wait for McMahon to attack him using a survey by a conservative group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that ranked him as the nation’s worst attorney general.

“That was actually a badge of honor,” Blumenthal said. “To be branded as the worst attorney general, by that organization, I regard as a huge distinction. A number of my colleagues called me the next day and said, you know, “What did you give them to call you the worst attorney general?’ “

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