West Hartford — Chris Shays mocked her as little more than an actress with a script, not a real candidate. Linda McMahon ignored him, sticking to tested talking points on the economy.
Despite efforts by Shays to provoke Wednesday night, the second and final televised debate of the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate resembled a summer rerun.
McMahon reflexively referred to herself as job creator, not a career politician. Shays insisted that his 21 years in Congress – the last two as New England’s only Republican — was a qualification, not a liability.
“Career politician, that’s who you are,” McMahon said.
Shays likened McMahon to one of the faux combatants in McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment dramas, playing the role of a candidate with a script provided by consultants.
“All her meetings that she has are scripted, just like this debate is scripted,” Shays said. “It’s sad.”
At the insistence of McMahon, the 60-minute broadcast on NBC Connecticut was the second and last chance for a side-by-side comparison before the GOP primary on Aug. 14.
McMahon, comfortably leading in every poll and on track to vastly outspend Shays, has refused offers of two other televised debates and no longer subjects herself to editorial page interviews.
After the debate, a reporter asked her if she needed the media to deliver her message. McMahon smiled and said nothing.
So confident is McMahon of victory in the primary that she at least twice ignored Shays in her answers and instead contrasted herself with the frontrunner of the Democratic nomination, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.
She made no apologies for hewing to the familiar: She has a six-point jobs plan, and she is a jobs creator. She made both points in the opening seconds of the broadcast and returned to them, like they were a comfortable pair of slippers.
“I am going to continue to stick to the points I raised, because they are the primary issues of our country,” McMahon told reporters. “It is jobs and the economy.”
McMahon was pressed by Shays during the debate and by reporters at its conclusion about her promise to release her 2011 tax returns – when they are ready. She would not promise them before the primary, nor would she offer the 2010 returns as a substitute.
“I have said I will release my tax return when it’s done,” McMahon said during the broadcast.
“So, when will they be done?” Shays demanded.
McMahon declined to say.
Her campaign has made the calculation that the issue does not resonate – or that Shays will be unable to capitalize. At present, he has no plans to air television ads, though his campaign has not ruled them out.
McMahon and Shays barely differed on the issues Wednesday night. They scuffled over the differences in their tax plans. Neither would vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, nor would they back U.S. involvement in Syria. Both oppose the Affordable Care Act.
The debate gave voters a glimpse of two politicians with sharply different biographies who largely agreed on every issue save one: The qualities and qualifications of each other.
Neither sees the other as fit for office. As was the case with his friend, former Congressman Rob Simmons, who lost to McMahon in a GOP primary in 2010, Shays says McMahon has no core.
She contributed generously to Democrats, including the political action committee that helped defeat Simmons and Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson in 2006 and Shays in 2008.
“What Mrs. McMahon wants to do is buy the election,” he said.
With the $50 million she spent in the 2010 race, the effort is approaching $60 million over three years.
But Shays also could be accused of sticking to a script: His criticisms and lines of attack were well-worn, by Simmons in 2010 and by Shays in his previous one-on-one meeting with McMahon.
Answering a question about women’s rights and access to contraception, Shays quickly affirmed he favors abortion rights and stem-cell research and then said, “I am troubled that we have a candidate running for the United States Senate who professes to care about women and then choose to have on her programs women stripping down to practically nothing but their underwear.”
Shays talked about old WWE programming that seemed to abuse an intellectually disabled wrestler, as well as other story lines that he says degraded women.
“I wouldn’t want Hugh Hefner as the next United States senator and I wouldn’t want Linda McMahon,” he said.
“Congressman Shays, you always get tied up in the Hollywood scripting of WWE. As usual, you have your facts wrong,” McMahon said, though she did not say how. Instead, she, too, returned to the familiar. “What we need is a senator who is a job creator.”