NEW HAVEN — Former President Bill Clinton focused heavily on the economic agenda needed to heal the nation  in Sunday morning’s rally to build support for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and longtime friend Richard Blumenthal.

In a 35-minute address at Wilbur Cross High School, the former president urged a crowd of more than 2,000 Blumenthal supporters to urge Connecticut voters frustrated by the sluggish economy to focus on candidates with detailed agendas for job growth, and avoid those seeking to make the election a referendum on public anguish.

blumenthal gets help from clinton 9-26-10

Bill Clinton rallying support for Richard Blumenthal (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“There is a real question in many people’s lives about whether the American Dream is going to be real for them and for their kids,” Clinton said.

Clinton never once mentioned Blumenthal’s GOP rival, Linda McMahon, by name and only alluded to her briefly with less than five minutes left in the speech.

The Democratic leadership of President Obama and the congressional majority is being threatened by a Republican campaign message that attributes the blame for the past recession to current leadership, rather than to eight years of the prior GOP administration under President George W. Bush, he said.

“The Republicans are trying to make this a referendum on people’s anger …  with a good dose of amnesia” about the Bush administration, Clinton said. “The Republican line goes like this. ‘You gave us eight years to dig that (economic) hole. You gave them 21 months to fill that in. Now put us back in office and let us put our shovels back to work.’”

Clinton spent considerable time discussing a 7-percentage-point gap that exists between the share of national income spent on health care in the U.S. compared with nearly all other major industrialized nations. That gap, the former president added, was worth nearly $1 trillion last year, even though the U.S. also ranks behind most of these countries in terms of health care effectiveness.

“If you want to bring back the American Dream, we cannot keep paying $1 trillion more for a (health care) system that produces less,” he said, adding that most of that gap is tied to insurance company profits — something Republicans are unwilling to address. “This is not rocket science and the other guys don’t believe in it.”

Though he devoted most of his speech to challenging the national Republican campaign agenda, Clinton, who was a classmate of Blumenthal’s at Yale Law School in the early 1970s, took time to laud his friend for a lengthy career of public service.

“If you’re willing to stand up and fight for people, you can make a real difference, and he has made a real difference,” Clinton, a former attorney general in his home state of Arkansas, said.

Blumenthal, as Connecticut’s attorney general since 1991, “has taken on just about every interest group you can and has thrived and survived,” the former president added.

Blumenthal, whose rally attracted several high-profile Democrats including gubernatorial nominee Dan Malloy and running mate Nancy Wyman, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Joe Courtney, and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, also steered clear of his opponent.

“Putting people first is what President Clinton did,” Blumenthal said, crediting Clinton with leading the nation through one of the largest sustained periods of economic growth in recent history. “That must be our priority. Putting people first. Getting the economy back on track.

Blumenthal, whose double-digit lead over McMahon dwindled to 6 percentage points in a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month, has been chastised by some of his fellow Democrats for not launching a strong attack on the Greenwich Republican, while others have said he should remain focused on traditional issues like jobs, health care and education.

The mood was mixed among the audience at Sunday’s rally.

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said McMahon’s role as co-founder and owner of the World Wrestling is fair game, and raises issues of character that voters are concerned about.

“I think a major issue is the fact that she sells sex and violence and I think it’s an appropriate topic for discussion,” Bysiewicz said.

But Manchester Democratic Town Chairman Michael Pohl said Blumenthal should keep his focus on which candidate is best suited to replace retiring senior U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

“We’re not going into a wrestling match,” Pohl said. “We’re talking about going into the United States Senate. The bottom line is this: Let’s talk about experience. Let’s talk about who’s going to bring back to Connecticut what Connecticut has coming from the federal government. I don’t believe Linda McMahon can do that.”

Clinton followed a largely hands-off philosophy when it came to McMahon, attacking the national GOP’s field of candidates, but staying quiet about Blumenthal’s opponent except for one odd reference toward the end.

Citing GOP efforts to stir national fear and unrest, Clinton noted that Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes referred to the city of Denver’s many bicycle paths as “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty,” the former president chucked in disbelief.

Clinton then added that Maes “might have spent too much time in the wrestling ring with –” but  broke off his sentence after the audience roared with approval.

Even the signs at the Clinton-Blumenthal rally stayed away from aggressive politics. Among the messages displayed were: “R.B. Fights For You” and “Moms 4 Blumenthal,” but no mention was made of McMahon.

McMahon spokesman Ed Patru issued a written statement early Sunday dismissing the Clinton visit as a sign that the Blumenthal campaign is foundering.

“Dick Blumenthal is losing support by the day among Connecticut residents because he knows nothing about job creation, … and he has a reputation as a dishonest politician,” Patru said.”And people recognize that President Clinton was deployed to Connecticut because Blumenthal’s campaign is in serious trouble.”

McMahon supporters had no problems going on the attack outside of the Wilbur Cross High School, as about two dozen backers rang bells, chanted “No Blumen Way,” and carried signs blasting both Blumenthal and Dodd. One sign, citing Blumenthal’s comments about serving in Vietnam — which he has since characterized as a mistake and apologized for — read: “BlumenDodd, Semper Lie.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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