The lineup promised fireworks: Linda McMahon, a WWE executive who has acted in wrestling melodramas; Peter Schiff, a CNBC pundit with a rabid following; and Rob Simmons, a former congressman, soldier and spy.
But for 60 minutes Tuesday, constrained by a televised debate format that discouraged confrontation, the three Republican U.S. Senate candidates found agreement on health care, foreign policy and the economy.
They could have car-pooled.
“You heard some things we all agreed on very much from a Republican perspective,” McMahon said. “We don’t like big government. We don’t like the deficit spending that is going on. We certainly don’t want government run health care.”
“I’m proud of our Republican candidates tonight,” Simmons said. “I hope they are proud of me.”
“I think it went well,” Schiff said. “I think the candidates did a pretty good job.”
Tuesday’s debate followed weeks of verbal jabs and sharp elbows, so the televised amiability was not fated to last.
For Jim Barnett, Simmons’ campaign manager, the good feelings lasted until 8:06 p.m., six minutes after the debate closed. In an email to reporters, he reminded them of an old story about McMahon’s donations to Democrats.
“Although Linda McMahon claims to oppose every liberal policy coming out of Washington, she is responsible for financing Democrats’ rise to power, with over $40,000 in donations to liberal Democrats,” Barnett wrote.
The McMahon camp went after Simmons even sooner: During the debate, aides emailed quotes from last year in which he said he was open to the public option in health care, something he branded “a terribly bad idea” Tuesday.
The debate was broadcast live on Fox 61, as was a debate Monday night between the two Democratic contenders, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Merrick Alpert. Both were at the University of Hartford and sponsored by Fox and The Courant.
McMahon stayed away from wrestling references, except for a single one-liner about how she might deal with recalcitrant politicians.
“I think probably if all else failed in Washington, I would set a ring up in the Senate chamber and lay a smack down on some of these guys,” she said.
Schiff, an economist and stock broker who became a cult hero on CBNC for insisting for several years before 2008 that a stock market collapse was inevitable, offered himself as prophet who should be sent to Washington and heeded.
“I forecast the financial crisis of 2008 in advance. Nobody sounded the alarm louder than I did,” Schiff said. “Not only didn’t anybody listen to me, a lot of people actually laughed at me.”
But Schiff said his main qualification is that he is not a politician.
“Politicians don’t care about your jobs. They only care about their own jobs,” he said. “And everything they do is about perpetuating their own careers in Washington.”
“If you really want to change Washington, if you really want to shake things up, then elect me as your United States senator,” Schiff said. “Because if you send me to Washington, I promise you one thing, that town will never be the same again.”
His CNBC fans applauded and chanted, “Peter! Peter!”
McMahon also tried tapping into the politics of discontent. Now a Greenwich multi-millionaire who may invest $50 million of her own funds in her campaign, she mentioned how she and her husband rose from bankruptcy to building the WWE.
“I’m listening to you. And I hear your frustration. I hear your concern for our economy. I hear your anger at the way that Washington is taking our country,” she said. “I’m not running because I need a job. I understand what you are thinking, and I’m running for the United States Senate because I want to represent you. I don’t need a hobby, because the job of a U.S. senator is serious business.”
Simmons emphasized his experience as a soldier and CIA officer, less as a three-term member of Congress. In his closing remarks, he added a dash of Tea Party rhetoric.
“I believe the American dream is at risk in America today because of a powerful and invasive federal government that is taxing too much and spending too much and taking away our freedom,” Simmons said. “I didn’t spend two tours in Vietnam fighting for freedom to lose it here at home.”
He seemed to suggest that opting for a cable pundit or a former wrestling executive would be a bad call.
“These are serious times. They call for serious leadership,” Simmons said. “The character of our Republican Party will be conveyed by the nominee we select.”
He later told reporters he was not demeaning his opponents.
After the debate, Schiff mildly complained about the format.
“I would have liked more in-depth discussion, more real debate,” he said. “The format wasn’t decided by me, but I think it gave me an opportunity to introduce myself. I think many of the people watching were probably surprised to see three podiums. A lot of people don’t even know I’m in the race.”
Schiff predicted he would be more successful convincing the powers that be of his economic wisdom from Washington.
“I think the fact that so many of my predictions have come true gives me a lot of credibility, especially since so many of the experts that are still advising our leaders got it wrong,” Schiff said. “They laughed at me as a private citizen. I don’t know that they will laugh at me as a United States senator.”