Storrs — Trailing in the polls, Chris Shays was the aggressor Thursday in a televised debate with Linda McMahon, assailing her Republican credentials, political acumen and association with World Wrestling Entertainment.
McMahon was a disciplined, stoic presence during the one-hour meeting of the two GOP candidates for Joseph I. Lieberman’s open U.S. Senate seat, turning questions about WWE, Shays’ record and even unrest in Syria to her cornerstone issue of jobs.
“Let’s not lose sight of why we are here,” McMahon said. “We don’t have our people working.”
Shays insisted that McMahon engage in a discussion of WWE programming that he called degrading to women, including an episode in which her husband, Vince, orders a crying woman to strip and “bark like a dog.”
McMahon wouldn’t play, not when he compared her to Hugh Hefner, not even when he suggested that McMahon contributed to congressional Democrats in hopes of quelling a congressional investigation of steroids by WWE wrestlers.
She eschewed the in-your-face swagger of professional wrestling and adopted the unexciting rope-a-dope tactics of Muhammad Ali, covering up and letting her opponent flail away.
To each jab, she blandly replied that voters on the campaign trail ask her about the economy, not the Stamford-based professional wrestling and media empire that made her rich enough to spend $50 million on her previous U.S. Senate try in 2010.
Occasionally, she counterpunched with a practiced retort.
When Shays mentioned the $50 million she spent on her losing campaign to Democrat Richard Blumenthal two years ago, McMahon was ready with a line about wasteful federal spending during his 21 years in Congress.
“You spent $50 million every 10 minutes during your tenure,” McMahon said.
Shays replied that McMahon is free to spend her money as she sees fit — and she is once again spending lavishly on the 2012 race — but the free flow of money is relevant.
“I just want you to know she is trying to buy an election,” said Shays, whose finances are so dire that he included an appeal for funds in his closing remarks.
When McMahon noted that Shays supported funding for two iconic pieces of federal pork barrel, the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and a rainforest in Iowa, Shays said the gibe betrayed her ignorance.
Those items were packed into a federal spending bill that contained vital transportation projects, and Congress later was able to strip out funding for the bridge.
“We took it out later… It hasn’t been built, and I voted to take it out,” Shays said, adding that McMahon’s misrepresentation of his record made her sound “more like a typical politician than she accuses me of.”
McMahon also refused to respond to his gibes about her past financial support for congressional Democrats, even when he tried to provoke her by connecting her donations to a congressional investigation of steroid abuse by WWE wrestlers.
Her obvious goal was to avoid an exchange that would find life on YouTube, giving Shays free media exposure that he cannot afford to buy. She is the only candidate airing TV commercials, with the results evident in recent polling as she picked up 15 percentage points among independents.
In fact, a McMahon ad played during the first commercial break in the debate broadcast. Shays has no immediate prospects of responding in kind. As of the end of April, he was outspent, $3.7 million to $750,000, and McMahon appears to have since spent nearly another $2 million on TV.
The debate was the first since the original five-candidate GOP field was narrowed to McMahon and Shays, and a Quinnipiac University poll branded McMahon as the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination.
The forum at the University of Connecticut was streamed live at noon on the web by FoxCT and The Hartford Courant and broadcast at 7 p.m. on FoxCT.
The two-person format allowed for crisp, direct exchanges between Shays, a former congressman from the 4th District of lower Fairfield County, and McMahon, a co-founder and former chief executive of WWE, a company still run by her husband, Vince McMahon.
Shays says WWE, with its history of using sex and cartoonish violence in its programming and its wrestlers’ abuse of steroids, is fair game for a campaign that McMahon wants tightly focused on her record of creating jobs.
“You can’t talk about you’re a job creator without talking about the jobs you created,” Shays said after the debate. “This is the first one-on-one debate. I couldn’t have a debate like this with five people.”
It also is a reason why McMahon has agreed to only one more debate before the Aug. 14 Republican primary.
A second debate is scheduled for July 18 on NBC30, but McMahon declined invitations for two others, including one co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters. They were to be televised on WTNH and Cablevision 12.
McMahon and Shays differed at the margins on taxes, with McMahon adopting an across-the-board stand against any new taxes, even if part of a bipartisan deal to cut the deficit with hefty spending cuts.
Shays said he would accept a deal that raised $1 in taxes for every $10 in spending cuts. He said her position was evidence of McMahon’s superficial knowledge of legislating.
Both played it safe when asked for specific budget cuts. They ignored the 40 percent of federal spending represented by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and supported vague cuts calculated not to offend.
In McMahon’s case, she proposed cutting one penny from every dollar of federal spending, though her campaign later pointed to previous statements that she does “not necessarily” mean an across the-board-cut. In Shays’, it was reducing federal personnel through attrition. McMahon also expressed opposition to “waste and duplicative programs.”
McMahon touts a six-point economic plan that promises the vast majority of voters a tax cut. It is illustrated on her website with a calculator that allows voters to see how much money her plan would save them.
Shays said the gimmick made her sound like a Democrat by promising to cut taxes “for a certain group.”
While McMahon displayed an ability to turn nearly every topic to jobs, Shays was creative in turning the conversation to WWE.
To a question about whether the GOP was hostile to women, Shays quickly mentioned the video clip of Vince McMahon ordering one of WWE’s buxom divas to strip, get on all fours and bark like a dog.
“She calls this a story,” Shays said. “I call it an outrage.”
“I think we’re a little off topic,” admonished the moderator, Logan Byrnes of FoxCT.
Reporters surrounded McMahon after the debate, pressing her to respond to Shays’ criticisms of WWE and a line in which he compared her qualifications for the Senate to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s: “Hugh Hefner is a job creator. I don’t want Hugh Hefner being there, and I don’t want Linda McMahon being there.”
“I tell you why I focus on the issues,” she said. “It’s because the people of Connecticut are focused on the issues that I kept coming back to,” McMahon said. “They are not talking to me about WWE. They are talking to me about how their families are going to be secure. How they are going to have jobs.”
Was Shays desperate?
“You’d have to ask Congressman Shays,” she said. “I just know I am going to stick to the issues, because that’s what’s on the minds and in the hearts of people in Connecticut.”
How did she feel about the comparison to Hefner?
“I am just going to continue talking and doing what I am doing,” McMahon said. “I am a respected CEO that has built a business from the ground up, created hundreds of jobs here in Connecticut, contributed millions upon millions of dollars into the economy of Connecticut, and that’s what’s important.”
Did he cross the line?
“I am really not going to focus on that. I’m just going to keep coming back to the issues, because that’s what’s important.”
Her last words before her press secretary ended the Q&A: “I’m going to keep saying it over and over again. The people of Connecticut want jobs.”