Danbury — It’s unclear if Sen. John McCain can produce votes for Republican Linda McMahon Nov. 6, but he did manage Monday to deliver Rob Simmons and Chris Shays, who bitterly fought her U.S. Senate nomination in 2010 and 2012.
In a cozy and crowded Disabled American Veterans hall just off I-84, McMahon acknowledged her two former GOP adversaries: Shays was in the audience, and Simmons introduced McCain, his fellow Vietnam War veteran.
“My friend, my colleague, my fellow veteran John McCain is back to do his magic one more time,” Simmons told the crowd, recalling McCain’s help during his upset victory in 2000 over U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-2nd District.
But neither of the former congressmen was exactly on message. Simmons said nothing about McMahon from the podium, and he and Shays offered her the thinnest of praise, calling her the obvious choice of GOP voters.
It was a feel-good event — McCain was greeted enthusiastically, with some vets lining the driveway holding U.S. flags — that didn’t quite jell.
McCain had endorsed Shays over McMahon as the best-qualified candidate in the 2012 primary, but he said Monday that Congress needs her background as the former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment.
“We need people in Washington who understand what it’s like to meet a payroll,” McCain said. “We need people in Washington, D.C., who know the combat of the free enterprise system.”
Together, he said, he and McMahon would work with a Senate Republican leadership and a new GOP majority to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
In remarks to reporters after the event, McCain smiled and shrugged off his previous choice of Shays over McMahon, who is the GOP nominee for an open Senate seat for the second time in as many elections.
“The people decided as to who they wanted,” McCain said. “Many times, unfortunately, I have picked people who have lost, and we unite behind the nominee.”
McCain did as much stumping Monday for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the man he badly defeated in the 2008 presidential primary in Connecticut, as he did for McMahon. He repeatedly criticized President Obama’s foreign policy as weak and “feckless.”
“Right now, Iraq is unraveling. We’ve sacrificed over 4,000 brave young American lives,” McCain said, faulting Obama for not leaving a stronger residual force to maintain security. “This president wanted us out of Iraq. We’re out of Iraq. And do you know what’s happened? Al Qaeda is on the way back.”
McMahon, who has kept her distance from the Senate Republican leadership and downplayed the pivotal role her election might play in tipping control of the Senate to the GOP, was happy to associate herself with McCain’s maverick image.
“I’d like to sit alongside this independent thinker in the Senate to make sure we move forward our economics and a strong defense,” McMahon said.
McMahon pledged her support for defense spending, even as she says she would back an overall reduction in federal spending. Her campaign has attacked her Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, as weak on defense in at least three recent mailings to unaffiliated voters.
To veterans, she said, the nation owes them all necessary care and a chance at a private-sector job.
“Unfortunately, a veteran takes his own life every 80 seconds. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” McMahon said. She later corrected herself, saying the suicide rate among veterans is once every 80 minutes. “We must take care of you and your families.”
McCain, a decorated Navy aviator and Vietnam prisoner of war, also is the son of a World War II submarine commander who was based for a time in New London, a base that was threatened in the last round of base closings.
McCain said he saw no need for another base-closure study.
He briefly engaged a woman in a debate outside the DAV hall after she told McCain that Obamacare was necessary for her husband, who owns a small business, to find decent health coverage.
“You’re misinformed,” he told her.
McCain and McMahon left Danbury for a campaign appearance in Norwalk.
Simmons and Shays, who each bitterly complained that McMahon was buying the GOP nomination, said they attended the campaign event in deference to McCain, party unity and to McMahon’s status as the GOP nominee.
Shays dodged the question of whether he now believes McMahon is qualified.
“I think that she’s the candidate, and I think that Chris Murphy is incredibly vulnerable,” said Shays, who lost an Aug. 14 primary to McMahon by a ratio of nearly 3-1. “I think she can win this race.”
Simmons offered a similar assessment.
Asked if McMahon had improved as a candidate since their 2010 contest, Simmons said, “She spoke without notes, which I think is a positive development.”