Blumenthal, McMahon jab and retreat in debate opener

Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon left their inaugural debate Monday night satisfied that neither had suffered a gaffe likely to haunt the remaining 28 days of their U.S. Senate campaign.

On the Bushnell stage in Hartford, Blumenthal and McMahon alternately threw jabs and retreated to well-practices lines directly out of their TV ads. The one-hour debate was televised live on FoxCT, giving voters statewide a chance to see them side-by-by for the first time.

By two measures, Blumenthal could claim a slight advantage:

He repeatedly forced McMahon to defend her stewardship of World Wrestling Entertainment. And nothing transpired that redefines a race that he leads in all recent polls, despite facing an opponent who already has spent more than $24 million, a record in Connecticut.

“I feel very good about this debate. I feel great about the campaign,” said Blumenthal, who quickly made his way to a post-debate press conference. “I am energized, as is our campaign.”

With every poll showing that the only issue of consequence is jobs, McMahon’s post-debate comments tried to refocus reporters on Blumenthal’s lack of business experience.

“I really believe it was clear from the folks watching at home and those that were in the auditorium that as we look at what is the number one issue in our country, which is jobs and creating jobs, Mr. Blumenthal does not know anything about creating jobs,” she said.

Blumenthal, the attorney general for 20 years, and McMahon, the former chief executive officer of WWE, are vying to succeed the retiring five-term Democrat, Christopher J. Dodd. Warren Mosler and John Mertens, two minor-party candidates, were not invited.

The debate was the first of three, with a fourth under negotiation.

Each candidate was asked to defend against charges in recent attack ads, which were shown to the candidates and audience.

Confronted with a new McMahon ad showing him misrepresenting his service as a stateside Marine Reservist during Vietnam, Blumenthal remained composed and once again apologized for what he called his occasional misstatements about being in Vietnam.

“There is nothing new in this ad, and there is nothing new about the McMahon attack on me,” the Democratic nominee said. Of his misstatements, Blumenthal added, “I regret it. I take full responsibility for it. It was not intentional, but that is no excuse.”

The answer left McMahon with little room to develop the issue, and she did not mention it for the rest of the debate. It will be left to McMahon’s ads to see if the issue can help erase a Blumenthal lead that has ranged from three to 12 percentage points in four recent polls.

McMahon, who is using her personal fortune to underwrite her first campaign for elective office, reacted more aggressively to a days-old Blumenthal ad that criticized her business practices and described her as open to cutting the minimum wage. She turned to Blumenthal and said, “That’s a lie, and you know it’s a lie.”

During a press conference last week, McMahon failed to clearly stake a position on reducing the minimum wage, though she later clarified she would not support a reduction. Despite that statement, Blumenthal aired an ad the next day insisting she still was open to cutting the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

The ad also claimed that WWE accepted $10 million in tax credits, then cut jobs. McMahon acknowledged some layoffs, but insisted that the credits helped the company add 52 jobs in its digital media division.

“Layoffs are hard. They are really tough to do,” McMahon said. But she said they ultimately made the company healthier and positioned it grow again.

The candidates were quizzed by reporters from Fox and the debate’s co-sponsor, The Courant, on issues that included Afghanistan, the bailout and how to cut the size of the federal government. They also answered questions from each other and the public.

The first question was posed by a viewer from Ellington, who asked how Blumenthal could work to spark the economy, given his lifetime in government; McMahon was asked how she could work in Washington, given her lifetime in business.

Blumenthal instantly reverted to a campaign talking point: He has stood up and fought for Connecticut in 20 years as attorney general. He used the word “fight” at least four times in the opening seconds.

He contrasted his support for extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class with McMahon’s insistence on an “all-or-nothing” bill that would preserve the cuts for everyone or no one.

Blumenthal called that position akin to holding middle-class tax relief hostage to a bill that also would bring relief to the nation’s richest two or three percent of taxpayers.

“That’s just not true, and he knows it,” McMahon said.

But McMahon did take that position weeks ago during a press conference in New Haven. When asked about the issue last week, she refused to commit to voting for a stand-alone bill affecting the middle class.

During the debate, McMahon said that the tax cuts should be extended for everyone, so not to crimp the growth of small businesses.

“The government doesn’t know how to create jobs,” she said.

Blumenthal returned to middle-class tax relief, an issue on which congressional Democrats and Republicans deadlocked last week, before they adjourned to return home and campaign.

“I am the only candidate here who would vote immediately for a middle-class tax cut,” he said.

He faulted the Democratic congressional leadership for adjourning without voting on an extension of the tax cuts. He also insisted he would have voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, though his opposition has grown more outspoken in recent months.

McMahon supported the TARP, saying it was necessary to stabilize the economy.

Blumenthal made better use of McMahon’s gaffe last week over the minimum wage than McMahon did of Blumenthal’s misstatements about Vietnam. He repeatedly worked the minimum wage into several answers about the economy and taxes.

Last week, McMahon struggled to answer questions about the minimum wage, ending a press conference without clearly saying if she would freeze, reduce or repeal the minimum wage, though she quickly clarified that she would not consider a reduction or repeal.

Each candidate expressed support for the death penalty, an issue in the news as the first trial of a defendant in the Cheshire home invasion case, which left a mother and two daughters dead, awaits a verdict. Blumenthal opposed capital punishment as a legislator, but he said he has consistently been a supporter since his first race for attorney general in 1990.

Afforded an opportunity to question each other, Blumenthal asked McMahon why the WWE makes the toys it markets in China and Pakistan.

“We have high labor costs, high energy costs,” McMahon replied. “All of these things are what are contributing to driving prices up in our country.”

Blumenthal said McMahon is accountable for the decision to go off shore.

McMahon asked Blumenthal to explain how jobs are created.

Blumenthal replied that jobs are created in response to a demand for services or products.

“I know about how government can help preserve jobs, and I want programs that provide more capital for small businesses, better tax policies,” he said.

“Government, government, government,” McMahon replied. “Government does not create jobs.”

McMahon used humor to convey her displeasure with gibes about her wealth from Blumenthal, a fellow Greenwich resident whose household assets range as high as $124 million, thanks primarily to his marriage to the former Cynthia Malkin.

McMahon made a reference to the Malkin family’s real-estate holdings, which include a major share in a certain New York landmark. She offered Blumenthal a deal: “I won’t let you count my money, and I won’t talk about the fact that your family owns the Empire State Building.”