mcmahon publicity photo

Campaign autograph: ‘Thanks for being a WWE fan!’

Like a noisy, eccentric relative, World Wrestling Entertainment keeps popping up during these last days of the carefully calibrated U.S. Senate campaign of Linda McMahon, bringing her fans and critics.

And McMahon, after nurturing WWE into an international brand that took her from bankruptcy to a Greenwich estate and the most expensive campaign in Connecticut history, welcomes its presence.

Ignoring Democratic claims of illegal coordination between her campaign and the company run by her husband, McMahon praised WWE’s new image-building advertising campaign on TV and the web, “Stand Up for WWE.”

“I’m glad to see what WWE has done,” McMahon said at a weekend campaign stop. “I had no idea they were doing it. I haven’t even seen the web site. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from folks who have seen it. I think it’s going well.”

One WWE commercial now seen on Connecticut cable systems features McMahon and other WWE personalities doing work for the children’s charity, the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Her campaign site also features video recorded last week of her talking about the WWE’s work with the foundation and dying children.

“You look at that child and tears roll down your cheek,” she said.

The polls say that WWE is a detriment to McMahon, who defeated former Congressman Rob Simmons and Peter Schiff, the investment guru and cable commentator, for the Republican nomination. It has given Democrats ample ammunition to use against her.

Today, Democrat Richard Blumenthal’s campaign says the father of the late WWE wrestler, Chris Benoit, will hold a press conference in Hartford to talk about McMahon’s record as chief executive of WWE. He presumably will talk about his son’s repeated concussions in the ring and steroid use. Benoit committed suicide after killing his wife and son in 2007. An autopsy found evidence of dementia linked to concussions.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is running a TV commercial reminding voters that McMahon once instructed a WWE subordinate to tip off a doctor to a federal steroid investigation. It is the second ad aired in a week about WWE.

And Blumenthal repeatedly turned on her during their last debate about some of WWE’s programming and McMahon’s refusal to concede that steroid use is dangerous.

But McMahon has been unwilling or, perhaps, incapable of distancing herself from WWE. Her advisers say McMahon is intensely proud of the Stamford-based company, and her reflexive reaction to criticism of WWE is to defend it.

Her identity is intertwined with that of WWE, as is clear every time she campaigns. Other candidates are not routinely asked for autographs on 8-by-11 glossy portraits, like the ones produced for Hollywood stars.

Blumenthal, who enjoys a different kind of celebrity after 20 years as the state’s attorney general, gets his share of requests to pose for pictures. But he is not subjected to the bone-crushing hugs encountered by McMahon.

On Saturday, McMahon marched in the Spirit of Waterbury parade with John Ratzenberger, the Bridgeport-born actor best known as the know-it-all postman, Cliff Clavin, on the old television sitcom, “Cheers.”

He was ignored.

As they marched through a Latino neighborhood on the way downtown to the Waterbury Green, women yelled from tenement windows, “Linda! Linda!”

Nearer the downtown, a plus-size woman suddenly shrieked, bolted from the sidewalk to hug and kiss her hero on the cheek. McMahon’s neck snapped back from the impact, but she laughed.

She still was laughing when a press aide, Jodi Latina, wiped the woman’s lipstick off McMahon’s cheek.

“Just like some of the folks you saw on this parade route this morning, they run up. They’re fans. ‘I love WWE. I love you,’ ” McMahon said.

On the Waterbury Green, a WWE-sized man in a black leather jacket, puffed on a cigarette as he watched McMahon pose for photographs and sign autographs. He finally walked over and pronounced himself a fan.

McMahon with Ratzenberger

Actor John Ratzenberger campaigns with Linda McMahon: Who’s the star?

“You’re a big guy,” McMahon said, patting the man on the chest.

He told her he enjoyed watching her husband. “I came to meet him, too,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” McMahon replied. “He’s with the grandkids.”

McMahon never has distanced herself from WWE, even when it presented embarrassing questions about steroid abuse and programming that made light of domestic abuse and sport of the mentally disabled.

During her final televised debate, she had the opportunity to condemn older WWE programming, when asked about shows that degraded women. One of them featured fans tormenting a WWE character with chants of “Slut! Slut! Slut!” The target was her daughter, Stephanie, a one-time performer who is married to a wrestler, Triple-H.

Instead, she mildly noted that WWE’s programming has shifted in the past two years from TV-14 to a tamer TV-PG rating. The closest she came to expressing regret was when she said, “I think there were times when we pushed the envelope.”

Triple H has campaigned for her in Fairfield. A video of the appearance is on her campaign web site.

At the same debate, McMahon said she saw nothing to apologize for in her years at WWE.

“You can always change the channel or decide not to go to that particular movie,” McMahon said. “I think it’s insulting to the millions of people who watch WWE every week and are entertained by it to somehow suggest it is less than quality entertainment.”

Her husband, Vince McMahon, after keeping a low-profile for much of the campaign, made the same point in an online video posted last week on the WWE site. The criticism of the WWE should be taken as criticism of its fans, he said.

“We ask you to join us in responding to these malicious attacks against the company and you, our viewers,” Vince McMahon says in an online video.

And WWE quickly issued a press release last week, when Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said that local election officials could consider WWE paraphernalia to be the equivalent of a political button, prohibited from the polls.

“Denying our fans the right to vote, denying them their First Amendment rights, regardless if they are Democrat, Republican or Independent, is un-American, unconstitutional and blatantly discriminatory,” said McMahon, the chairman and CEO of WWE.

Av Harris, a spokesman for Bysiewicz, said no one is going be denied the right to vote.

“We didn’t say nobody can wear any WWE clothing to polling places. What we said is they should evaluate it on a case by case basis,” he said. “If the moderators deem that the presence of the WWE material was in any way interfering, they could ask someone to cover up the T-shirt shirt or take off the hat.”

Moderators were given similar advice in 2008, when they sought guidance about how to handle voters who showed up with a popular Obama T-shirt, Harris said.

Next Saturday, President Obama is to lead a get-out-the-vote rally for Democrats at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, a sometimes WWE venue.

At the same time, the WWE will be staging a fan-appreciation show at the XL Center in Hartford, the arena where Obama addressed 17,000 people during the presidential campaign in 2008.

Vince McMahon is expected to be there. He has encouraged fans to bring signs, responding to the criticism of the company and its personalities made during the Senate campaign. So far, his wife has no plans to attend.

“I don’t think I’m going to that,” she said. “I didn’t even know about that until tickets went on sale. So, no, I don’t plan to go there.”

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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