Norwich — Linda McMahon challenged Christopher Shays’ GOP credentials and Shays questioned McMahon’s electability Thursday night at a bloodless first debate by the crowded five-candidate Republican field for U.S. Senate.
Seated side by side, McMahon and Shays did their best to focus on each other, but they shared the stage with three other candidates, all lawyers claiming to represent the party’s conservative core: Brian Hill, Peter Lumaj and Kie Westby.
Hill chided his colleagues for violating Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment of speaking no evil of fellow Republicans, but the admonition was largely unnecessary. Over 90 minutes, Shays and McMahon landed only glancing blows.
Both became targets in the closing minutes of gibes from Lumaj, an Albanian immigrant who describes himself as the most conservative candidate of the quintet, and from Hill, despite his earlier concern with the commandments.
“This fight, it’s so important, so significant, that it cannot be left to the likes of Chris Shays, who we know is a RINO, or to Linda McMahon, who we know deep down in our hearts, she is not electable,” Lumaj said. “We need a conservative.”
Hill, an African American who says the GOP needs a candidate that can appeal to urban voters, offered a gentler, though still-pointed critique of the two front-runners.
“We don’t need any more career politicians. We don’t need any more self-funding candidates,” Hill said. “We do not have any more time for shenanigans as usual.”
On the issues, the candidates hewed to safe Republican talking points: Taxes should be simplified, Iran contained, Obamacare repealed, and illegal immigrants denied a path to legal status. All five said they oppose the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants.
McMahon went beyond calling for tax simplification, proposing a middle-class tax cut. She did not explain how taxes could be broadly cut without adding to the deficit, nor did she outline off-setting spending cuts.
Westby favors a flat tax.
“Our economy is stuck in neutral, because the taxes are too high,” Westby said.
As he explained his position on taxes, Westby’s cell phone began ringing. He reached into his pocket, checked the caller ID and placed it back in his pocket.
None of them made an effort to distance themselves from the national Republican Party on abortion or contraceptive issues when asked if they thought there was a GOP war on women.
McMahon replied that women had the same interests as men, including a good job and solid economy.
One of the few answers that drew applause came from Hill: “There’s no war on women. I am not even going to dignify that with a response.”
Republicans are aching for a victory after last winning a Senate seat in Connecticut in 1982. For the second time in two elections, a U.S. Senate seat is open as Joseph I. Lieberman is retiring after 24 years.
McMahon, a World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder who won 43 percent of the vote in the 2010 Senate race after spending $50 million, is leading in the polls among Republicans, but she trails by double-digits in general-election matchups with Democrats, making electability an issue.
Shays trails her among GOP voters, but a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed him in a dead heat with Democrats.
“The bottom line is I can win,” Shays said.
McMahon, generally a relaxed campaigner, was visibly tense as she waited to go on stage. She stuck to an evident game plan: Ignore Westby, Lumaj and Hill, engage Shays as necessary, and refer whenever possible to her six-point plan for job creation.
“I am the candidate in this race that can put our country back to work,” said McMahon, who says WWE, based in Stamford, now employs nearly 700. McMahon talked about her modest upbringing in North Carolina, but she did not run away from her independent wealth: “I am very proud of earning my money the old-fashioned way.”
Westby took offense at McMahon’s description of herself as a job creator at the WWE, saying he has helped numerous business clients expand.
“These are real jobs, not men bulked up on steroids, not women prancing around in bikinis,” Westby said, referring to WWE wrestlers.
Shays said McMahon cannot credibly claim to be a conservative: No fiscal conservative would spend $50 million as she did on her 2010 campaign, and no social conservative would present the programming offered by the WWE.
But McMahon left the stage having made no forced or unforced errors, a standard that most front-runners would view as a success.
Their audience of about 100 people, many who seemed associated with one of the campaigns, generated no energy in a middle school auditorium capable of holding at least triple their number.
The debate, which was sponsored by the Norwich Bulletin, was streamed live on the newspaper’s website, but it was not televised. The first televised GOP debate is Sunday from 11 a.m. to noon on WFSB, Channel 3.
Shays, who served 13 years in the General Assembly and 21 years in Congress, said the party needs a candidate who can win.
“I’ve won 18 elections,” Shays said in his closing statement. “We can win this race, if that’s what we want, but only if I am the candidate.”
McMahon, who announced she would be joining other candidates in releasing their tax returns, circled back to her jobs plan and her private-sector experience.
“I’m a job creator. We need to send job creators to Washington,” McMahon said. “We can’t keep sending career politicians to Washington and expect them to correct the messes they already made.”