Meriden -- The U.S. Senate campaigns of Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon played cat-and-mouse Wednesday over Social Security, Medicare and personal character.
Thirty minutes before Murphy told residents at a nursing home that McMahon's election would be a threat to their benefits, McMahon released a pre-emptive ad attacking Murphy's veracity.
"Chris Murphy attacks Linda on Social Security and Medicare," her new ad says, then quickly pivots to this attack: "But Murphy didn't tell us the truth about when he was sued in court about not paying his rent."
The two campaigns are talking past each other, responding to the other's gibes by trying to redirect the press and public: Murphy on McMahon's positions on Social Security, McMahon on Murphy's attendance record and financial miscues.
"Linda McMahon is scared to death of a campaign that is talking about the issues," Murphy said. "She knows that she loses this campaign if voters are focused on the differences between her and I on Social Security, Medicare and women's health."
The two candidates will face each other for the first time Sunday in a debate televised live on WFSB at 11 a.m., the first of four debates. In the meantime, the candidates face the media only in carefully chosen settings.
McMahon's only public campaign events this week were appearances Monday in Danbury and Norwalk with Arizona Sen. John McCain, where she only briefly took questions. She is also scheduled to meet Friday with the Hartford Courant editorial board.
Murphy campaigned earlier Wednesday at an aerospace company in Glastonbury, but the only event publicized by his campaign this week was his stop at Genesis HealthCare in Meriden. He took questions for eight minutes, then was led away to an unidentified destination.
(Late Wednesday night, his campaign announced Murphy will campaign Thursday morning in Hartford, holding a roundtable discussion with business owners about McMahon's tax plan.)
So goes campaigning in 2012, when the candidates rarely talk to voters in the presence of the press. The most visible aspect of each campaign comes in 30-second bursts on television.
According to a report released Wednesday by the Wesleyan Media Project, McMahon broadcast 2,024 commercials from Sept. 9 to 30, while Murphy and groups backing him aired 1,564 spots over the same period. McMahon outspent Murphy and his supporters on TV over the three-week period, $2.8 million to $921,810.
Murphy campaigned Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat who defeated McMahon in the 2010 race for the seat then held by the retiring Chris Dodd. He was a late substitute for Max Richtman, the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
The senator and the congressman-who-would-be-senator each told seniors that McMahon is willing to consider dramatic changes to Medicare and a phase-out of Social Security unless the retirement program is reformed.
Murphy is capitalizing on recent attention to a 5-month-old video of McMahon calling for "sunset provisions" on Social Security to force a congressional review. A sunset provision sets an expiration date on a program unless Congress votes to reauthorize it.
But McMahon says she never meant to signify a willingness to subject Social Security to an expiration date. On Medicare, she says she opposes any change in benefits for current beneficiaries but is open to future changes.
Asked if seniors had any reason to fear cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits -- most proposed reforms focus on future recipients -- Murphy said, "I take Linda McMahon at her word. She said that she would support ending Social Security in 10 years if changes weren't made. I think that is a very dangerous plan for these seniors."
McMahon has advertised heavily about Murphy's vote for President Obama's Affordable Care Act, whose provisions include a $716 billion cut in spending on Medicare. The law assumes a savings of that amount by reducing reimbursements, not by cutting benefits.
One of the nursing home residents could be heard asking Murphy about that vote. He told her it would not affect coverage.
"This is a huge vulnerability for him," said Corry Bliss, McMahon's campaign manager.