In their first of four debates, Connecticut's U.S. Senate candidates spent more time Sunday attacking each other than defining their respective positions.
U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy and businesswoman Linda McMahon hammered away at each other during the hour-long forum broadcast live on WFSB-TV3, challenging each other's stands on taxes, the economy, health care, Social Security -- and frequently personal integrity.
Both candidates also spent much of the debate trying to claim the role of best advocate for the middle class, with Murphy painting McMahon -- a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment who is self-funding her campaign -- as a wealthy elitist -- and McMahon tagging her opponent as a career politician with no understanding of business.
The debate, which can be viewed online, took place at WFSB's studios in Rocky Hill. It also was simulcast on C-SPAN.
Sparks fly on taxes and jobs
"Over and over again, Linda McMahon has shown she stands up for herself and her profits, at the expense of people that work for her and at the expense of this state," said Murphy, a three-term Democratic congressman from Cheshire.
He said that in 2009, the same year the WWE received $10 million in state tax credits, the company laid off 10 percent of its workforce and McMahon reported annual income of about $46 million.
And the jobs plan that McMahon has touted throughout her campaign would prevent top marginal income tax and capital gains income rate increases from kicking in next year, saving the Republican nominee from Greenwich $7.5 million per year, Murphy said.
But McMahon, the former WWE chief executive, fired back that while Murphy has said he would maintain current tax rates for the middle class, her jobs growth plan includes a middle class tax cut.
"I've had a career of creating jobs and contributing here to the economy of Connecticut," McMahon said.
Murphy challenged the integrity of McMahon's plan, noting that several sections are a verbatim match from conservative policy think-tanks, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute. He called it plagiarism.
"That's a really attractive idea to right-wing Republicans in Washington," Murphy said, adding that it explains why it includes a tax break for the wealthy. "But it just doesn't work."
"You have no plan," McMahon responded, "and I think the people of Connecticut want to know what you're going to do for them."
McMahon also argued repeatedly that Connecticut voters really want to know more details about Murphy's past delinquent rent and mortgage payments, as well as a home-equity loan he obtained from Webster Bank, despite his late payments.
"You thought this was going to be a coronation, but you're in a serious race with a serious woman, and you are desperate," McMahon said. "You need to be honest about your special interest loan."
Webster has repeatedly said that Murphy was hardly extended special treatment: His 4.99 percent rate was 1.50 points higher than the rate given its most credit-worthy customers.
"As I've said, I've made mistakes in my personal finances," Murphy said. "I've made mistakes, and I've fixed them."
And he also noted that while McMahon has talked on the campaign about how she and husband, Vince, filed for bankruptcy protection in 1976, Linda McMahon still hasn't paid back all of the $1 million she owed her creditors.
Personal integrity at issue
But the attacks on personal integrity went well beyond personal finances. Sunday's forum featured plenty of mutual charges of trying to avoid stating positions on key issues.
When McMahon refused to say whether she would support raising payroll taxes to strengthen the Social Security system -- pledging only to sit down "in a bipartisan way" to find a solution -- Murphy called her answer "a minute and 30 seconds of 'I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do if you elect me.'"
And while Murphy said he supports a balanced approach to addressing the federal deficit, with both tax increases and spending cuts, McMahon said her opponent has offered too few of the latter to make any difference.
"The reason tax cuts don't always work is you don't decrease spending at the same time," she said.
Neither campaign has been sharing full candidate appearance schedules, and McMahon has declined editorial board interviews and greatly limits her availability to answer media questions. But McMahon defended her campaign approach, arguing she focuses on reaching businesses and voters directly.
"I am out every single day," she said. "I have traveled our state" visiting hundreds of businesses and meeting with thousands of voters.
"We can bring our message directly to the people of Connecticut," she added. "I learn from them. I listen to them when I'm out."
Health care and reproductive rights
The two candidates also clashed on health care issues.
McMahon pledged to preserve women's current reproductive rights. But Murphy said that pledge already is invalid, noting that McMahon has expressed support for a Republican proposal that would allow employers to limit health insurance coverage for contraceptives as a matter of conscience.
"I clearly support women's health issues," McMahon responded, adding that her position also reflects a need to limit intruding "government overreach" into religion and free markets.
Murphy said abortion would be a litmus test for him in deciding whether to confirm a Supreme Court justice; McMahon opposed a litmus test, saying the critera for confirmation should be broader.
McMahon also called for repeal of national health care reform. Though she likes provisions in Obamacare that ban insurance companies from penalizing individuals for pre-existing health conditions and that allow grown children to remain on their parents' insurance until age 26, she said the overall package failed to stem rising costs and premiums.
States should be allowed to impose the level of insurance mandates they currently do, and tort reform is needed to control medical malpractice insurance costs.
But Murphy argued, "There is no repeal and replace plan," adding that this would leave millions of Americans with no health insurance coverage. "Let's fix this bill and make it right, not repeal it."
Even when McMahon and Murphy found a rare moment of agreement, it didn't come without contention.
Both candidates offered their support for legalization of same-sex marriage.
But when McMahon prefaced her remarks by incorrectly referring to "America's law for same-sex marriage," Murphy quickly noted federal law doesn't allow for gays and lesbians to marry. In fact, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and it bars the recognition of same-sex marriage for purposes of federal benefits.
"There is a war being waged against gays and lesbians" and McMahon's answer "tells you she isn't going to stand up to her party. ... Linda McMahon, as a Republican in the Senate, is just going to be another vote" against same-sex marriage.
But the Republican responded that she would break with her own party, if necessary, on the issue of same-sex marriage.
"I will absolutely differ from my party," she said. "I believe in equal rights for all."
After the debate, McMahon said she would vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage of Act. During her previous run in 2010, her position was unclear.
When asked about the law in an interview in March 2010, she said, "I do think it's a state's right issue." When pressed, she added, "I don't think there should be a federal law." But her spokesman in that campaign, Ed Patru, said months later she didn't support repealing the law.
On Sunday, McMahon told reporters her position has evolved.
"I have changed my position on DOMA," McMahon said. "With gay marriage now approved in the state of Connectiut, I just don't think it's fair. So I would vote to repeal DOMA."
McMahon defended her attacks on Murphy as substantive.
"I have challenged him when I think he wasn't honest," McMahon said, saying she was offended the Murphy accused her of plagiarism. "I just wanted to hit him hard on that."
Murphy claimed victory.
"Linda McMahon wrestled with the issues this morning, and the issues won. Linda McMahon couldn't answer basic questions on her positions on Social Securty and Medicare and women's health," Murphy said. "I think voters saw a very clear difference."
Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.