Republican Linda McMahon’s campaign staff abruptly ended a press conference today as the Senate candidate struggled to explain if she endorsed a business group’s call for freezing the federal minimum wage and rolling back mandates on business.

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Linda McMahon accepts a business group’s endorsement and gets grilled on its agenda (Mark Pazniokas)

McMahon accepted the endorsement of the National Federation of Independent Business, but she seemed unprepared for questions about the group’s agenda, which includes freezing the minimum wage and simplifying the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When a campaign aide cut off questions after less than 8 minutes, it was unclear if she favored freezing the minimum wage — or would consider even scrapping the wage law, which was adopted during the Great Depression.

Only when reporters caught up to her as she was exiting a business hosting the press conference did the Republican clarify that she was not for a repeal of the wage law. She said, “That is clearly not my position, no.”

The midday exchange was an example of how the most routine encounters with the press can turn dangerous when a campaign fails to anticipate questions. Democrats quickly pounced on her statements, and her own campaign blamed what it described as misleading initial press reports.

By 3:30 p.m., state and national Democratic groups and the Connecticut AFL-CIO had denounced McMahon. “It is outrageous that multi-millionaire McMahon is open to reducing the minimum wage, and mind boggling that she doesn’t even know how much it is,” said John Olsen, the AFL-CIO president.

And the Working Families Party rushed out an announcement that it was endorsing her Democratic opponent, Richard Blumenthal. McMahon’s campaign responded with two damage-control emails, one with video of McMahon making clear she was not calling for repeal.

At 6:11 p.m., the campaign sent reporters a third email from Ed Patru, McMahon’s communication director, stating that McMahon is opposed to cutting the minimum wage.

“Linda is opposed to lowering the minimum wage, and she believes Washington absolutely needs to stop the practice of passing multi-billion bills without review and debate,” he said. “She’s not a politician. She believes we should review bills before they are passed.”

But it was McMahon’s unwillingness to be specific that set off an escalating exchange of clarifying questions that yielded answers that only grew more confusing. It was an odd issue for a Connecticut candidate to trip on, as the hourly federal minimum wage of $7.25 is superseded by the state’s higher level of $8.25, rendering the federal standard a non-issue.

The first question was simple enough: Does McMahon support the federation’s agenda, specifically a freeze of the minimum wage and roll back of mandates, including those in the Americans with Disabilities Act?

“I think what we have to look at whenever we’re talking about minimum wage increases is where is our economy at this particular point and how’s that going to impact the businesses that are going to have to pay those wages,” McMahon said.

“And I think that’s part of what I bring to the table is understanding the consequences that the effect of the business of putting mandatory increases in place. It’s, you know, the fella who’s running the retail store that’s hiring kids to wrap presents at Christmas time. It’s all the way down to that level, and how can you afford all those different services.”

Does she think there should be a minimum wage?

“I think we need to review how much it ought to be and whether or not we ought to have increases in the minimum wage, and if it is, how is it planned. Does it get tied to inflation? Are there just automatic increases in it? And I think that we should always review the policies that are put in place to make sure we are keeping with today and the needs of today.”

Other questions about what mandates should be rolled back produced few specifics. McMahon said the health-care reform law was onerous, but she did not respond directly when asked if she would vote to repeal consumer protections, such a ban on lifetime coverage limits or cancellation of coverage.

Instead, she described a process for review legislation that adds to the cost of business.

“What is the measure? We have to understand the consequences of passing legislation. So we have to understand there is a cost to that,” McMahon said. “There are a lot of good programs that have been put in place, but can we afford to put them in place?”

But what of the new consumer protections?

“I think they have to be balanced with their cost,” she replied.

“Thank you, everyone,” yelled a press aide, Shawn McCoy.

A follow up question was interrupted.

“That was the last question,” McCoy insisted.

But McMahon took a few more questions on the way out the door at Horizon Services of East Hartford, a cleaning company and NFIB member that hosted the press conference. She clarified that no one should leave believing the minimum wage should be repealed.

She was unsure if her company, World Wrestling Entertainment, had any minimum-wage employees, saying there might be some interns.

“You know, guys,” she said. “I’m just not going to comment any more.”

A reporter asked if she knew the current minimum wage in Connectiut.

She paused.

“I don’t remember exactly what it is in Connecticut,” she replied. “I’d have to double-check that.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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