Hartford — During their fourth and final U.S. Senate debate, Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon splashed in the shallows Thursday, exchanging familiar gibes, often without regard to question or topic.
Neither candidate ventured into waters deep or unfamiliar, content to reinforce narratives well-established by television advertising. In relentlessly staying on message, each proved they possessed discipline, if little else.
To nearly every question Thursday and over three previous debates, McMahon circled back to one answer: She has a six-point jobs plan, built around a middle-class tax cut and fewer business taxes and regulations.
“Let’s create jobs. That’s what we need to do to: Put people back to work,” McMahon said. “And when we put people back to work, we’ll get our economy on track. And I have a plan to do that, a six-point plan.”
That answer was in response to a question about one-party rule.
“Regulations really hurt businesses,” McMahon said. “We need regulations, but we don’t need the over burdensome portion of those regulations. So my plan is designed and geared to jump-start the economy by putting our people back to work.”
That answer was in response to a question about whether she viewed the income gap between rich and poor as a problem facing Connecticut.
The polling shows a close race between Murphy, a three-term congressman, and McMahon, a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, as they fight over the seat left open by the retiring Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.
The debate was sponsored by the Connecticut Broadcasters Association, and it was carried live at 4 p.m. on WFSB, Channel 3 and WTNH, Channel 8. Fox CT, NBC30 and CPTV broadcast it later.
In a meeting room at the Hartford Hilton converted to a makeshift studio, the panel of four broadcasters asked questions about topics raised at previous debates: Social Security, abortion and reproductive health, negative campaign ads and a single question on poverty.
Al Terzi of FoxCT pressed for specifics on how the candidates would restore Social Security to long-term solvency.
“I have not talked about specifics when I have been on the campaign trail, because they get demagogued,” she said. “There are many ways that we can reform Social Security and Medicare, and we must do that.”
But she made no promises or offered any ideas, other than repeating her vow not to cut benefits for current recipients.
Murphy said he favored lifting the cap on the Social Security payroll tax, which now applies to only the first $106,800 of income. The 12.4 percent payroll tax is split, with employer and employee each paying 6.2 percent.
“I do think we have an obligation as candidates for the Senate to tell people what we’re going to do,” Murphy said.
But Murphy devoted more time to sowing doubt about McMahon’s beliefs on Social Security than explaining his own, recalling McMahon’s ambiguous comments in April at a tea party forum about “sunset provisions” for Social Security.
Murphy suggested that McMahon had been caught in a moment of candor, unaware her words were being recorded. But McMahon actually was speaking at a public forum with other candidates, which was covered by the media.
“We didn’t go back and review it,” she said of Social Security in April. “In other words, I believe in sunset provisions when we pass this kind of legislation, so that you take a look at it 10, 15 years down the road to make sure that it’s still going to fund itself.”
McMahon has since said she simply was suggesting a regular review of Social Security, but the federal retirement program already is subject to an annual evaluation of its solvency.
Murphy said it is fair to glean meaning from McMahon’s “sunset” comment, since she otherwise says little of substance about Social Security.
“It’s difficult to understand what Linda McMahon really thinks about Social Security, because for the fourth straight debate, she won’t be straight with people,” Murphy said. “We can’t get from her her priorities.”
Murphy and McMahon scuffled again on abortion, even as they gave similar answers: Each said they believed life begins at birth, not conception; each also opposed late-term abortions, except to preserve the life or health of the mother.
“I am a pro-choice candidate,” McMahon said.
“The facts are clear. Linda McMahon is not pro-choice,” Murphy said.
McMahon said she would vote for the Blunt Amendment, which allows employers to deny contraceptive and certain other reproductive health coverage for moral reasons.
Murphy said McMahon’s election would help tilt the Senate into the hands of conservative Republicans, who are opposed to abortion.
Even on abortion, McMahon talked about jobs. She said that women she meets are concerned about the economy, not abortion rights.
“This is the primary issue facing our women today,” McMahon said.
The debate did have a lighter moment when Mark Davis of WTNH, Channel 8, asked the candidates if they could say anything nice about the other.
“I’m not sure we’ll need two minutes on this,” said the moderator, Steve Kotchko of the Connecticut Radio Network.
Murphy praised McMahon for her drive and her charitable contributions.
McMahon said Murphy’s two young sons are cute.
“For the record,” Murphy said, grinning, “I think Linda McMahon said nice things about my little boys.”
The lightness did not last. In their closing remarks, each returned to attacking the other.
McMahon alluded to a $43,000 home equity loan obtained by Murphy and his wife after Murphy had been sued over missed rental and mortgage payments, suggesting it was obtained improperly.
“You’ll have a choice between someone who can’t be bought,” said McMahon, a multimillionaire funding her second campaign in as many elections, “and someone who already has taken special interest money for a loan.”
Murphy ignored the innuendo to link McMahon to the programing of WWE, with its over-the-top, cartoonish vioence and, at one point in its history, sexually charged story lines that showed women being abused. He said his life has been about public service.
“What makes the contrast between me and Linda McMahon so clear is that Linda McMahon has not just sat on the sidelines, she’s made things worse by mistreating her workers, by selling sex and violence to our kids,” Murphy said. “Linda McMahon has never been there for us.”
But she is charitable.
And his kids are cute.