Expect to see Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon closely stick to scripted talking points tonight in the first of only two live televised debates in their U.S. Senate race.
Neither candidate has shown much flair for impromptu remarks; each has suffered the indignity of having press aides noisily and abruptly end press conferences when questioning by reporters has pushed them off their rehearsed themes and talking points.
Most recently it was McMahon, who suffered a burst of bad publicity last week over her struggle to clearly answer questions about a simple topic: the federal minimum wage.
The minimum-wage flap exposed one of McMahon’s shortcomings as a first-time candidate: a tendency to wriggle when pushed to commit.
But the far more-experienced Blumenthal has displayed his own discomfort when pressed beyond the theme of the day.
On the day after the Aug. 10 primary, no matter the question, Blumenthal robotically stuck to his talking points: He is a fighter. And he will stand up against “special interests” and “politics as usual.”
When reporters tried to push him beyond those lines, a press aide cut off the questioning, producing an unflattering video clip for the evening news.
Last week, questions about a narrowing lead in the polls elicited familiar lines about being a fighter.
Will either candidate show a greater agility tonight on the stage of the Bushnell in Hartford?
Unlike the major-party candidates for governor, Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican Tom Foley, Blumenthal and McMahon infrequently stray from highly structured public events.
They have agreed only to two debates that can be seen on statewide television, starting with tonight’s 7 p.m. broadcast on Fox 61, plus a third in a Fairfield County that will be taped and shown on Cablevision 12.
Malloy and Foley will face off a dozen more times before election day. Four debates will be televised live, beginning Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Fox61.
Blumenthal is likely to contrast his commitment to maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits with McMahon’s insistence that the topic of entitlements, which consume 40 percent of the federal budget, cannot be rationally discussed during a campaign.
McMahon will try to paint him as a career politician, unable to bring change to Washington.
McMahon, who is celebrating her 62nd birthday today, has been stronger and more direct than the 64-year-old Blumenthal on one topic: her opponent.
Unlike Blumenthal, McMahon has shown little reluctance to get personal when it comes to the other candidate’s character.
“I think that he has had a great deal of difficulty being straightforward in his answers, and he has not told the truth,” McMahon told reporters last week.
McMahon said Blumenthal’s misstatements on his military service during Vietnam and his initial denial that a trip to Vancouver was for a fundraiser raises questions about his character.
“That was not the truth,” McMahon said. “And when he spoke about serving in Vietnam, it was not the truth.”
Will she be that direct tonight?
Blumenthal has been slow to personally buttress the case, made by his campaign, that McMahon’s fortune was built on exploiting her wrestlers and audience at World Wrestling Entertainment.
So far, Blumenthal has stuck to his campaign’s tagline about McMahon, that she has “put profits before people.” But he has declined to delve into any of the off-color details, particularly about WWE’s sexually explicit older programming.
The state Democratic Party has distributed WWE video of McMahon’s son-in-law, the wrestler Triple H, simulating necrophilia. Over the weekend, the party tipped reporters that Triple H was campaigning with McMahon.
But when pressed by reporters, Blumenthal has shrunk from commenting directly on some of WWE’s racier programming, including the ridicule of a handicapped character and physical abuse of women, such as an episode when McMahon’s husband, Vince, forced a crying female wrestler to disrobe, get on all fours and bark like a dog.
Blumenthal is more likely to stick to more comfortable terrain, pitching himself as a fighter who has stood up to utilities, insurance companies and big tobacco on behalf of Connecticut voters.
“People in Connecticut know me,” he said last week. “They know my record of standing up for them and fighting for them against the most powerful special interests and that’s the kind of United States senator I intend to be.”
McMahon’s rise in the polls, pulling to within 3 percentage points last week in a Quinnipiac University poll, has coincided with growing voter anger and dissatisfaction with the Obama administration and Congress. The poll found the angrier the voter, the stronger their support for McMahon.
The remaining debates:
Oct. 7, 9 a.m.: Business forum to be taped and televised by Cablevision 12 the Continental Manor in Norwalk. Reservations required.
Oct. 12, 7 p.m.: The Day/WTNH televised debate at The Garde Center for the Arts, New London. Tickets required.