Waterbury — U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon relied on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s plus-sized persona Monday to rev up the Republican base, even as she distances herself from the GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
A high-profile campaigner for Romney in swing states, Christie didn’t bother to mention him in a state long-written off by his campaign, a fact underlined by McMahon’s new advertising appeal to supporters of President Obama.
Instead, Christie lacerated her Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, as a puppet of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and embraced McMahon as a kindred spirit, a Republican who can succeed in a blue Northeastern state as he did in 2009.
“You’ve got a clear choice here. You can vote for a smart, independent accomplished businesswoman, or you can vote for Nancy Pelosi’s butler,” Christie said. “That’s your choice.”
The crowd that filled the first floor of the former Howland-Hughes department store came primed to cheer the pugnacious Christie, whose blunt, everyman speaking style and battles with unions have made him a conservative hero.
One measure of his appeal was that even a joke about the ease of finding targets during his time as a U.S. attorney got belly laughs, despite this city’s long and unhappy history with federal prosecutors.
“I was the chief federal prosecutor in New Jersey for seven years,” Christie said. He waited a beat, then added. “We call that shootin’ fish in a barrel.”
To the right of the stage, one of McMahon’s volunteers and vendors, Jeffrey P. Santopietro, looked over his left shoulder at his older brother, former Mayor Joseph J. Santopietro, who stood behind the rope line with the audience.
Federal prosecutors indicted both brothers in a corruption case that ended Santopietro’s tenure as mayor. The former mayor did time. His brother, convicted of a minor role, did not.
Both laughed and applauded.
Christie campaigned with McMahon in Stamford, Waterbury and the Hartford suburb of Glastonbury, delivering an old-fashioned message about turning out the vote as the campaign enters its final 14 days.
Murphy has a slight lead in recent polls, but the race for the seat held by the retiring Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman still is considered a toss-up, with Democratic groups ramping up spending on ads in recent weeks, an effort to blunt McMahon’s 5-1 advantage in spending.
“I am feeling really good about our race,” McMahon said. “We’ve got the right message.”
Murphy, who is fighting McMahon for the women’s vote that was pivotal in Democrat Richard Blumenthal’s victory over McMahon in the 2010 race, is campaigning Tuesday with Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Former President Bill Clinton is coming to Connecticut on Oct. 28, reprising the late get-out-the-vote role he played for Democrats in 2010.
In some ways, the 50-year-old Christie was an odd fit for McMahon. He is strongly linked to Romney, and McMahon is in the midst of appealing on television to black and Latino voters supporting Obama.
Christie also was a publicly financed candidate who defeated a wealthy self-funder, Gov. Jon Corzine, the former U.S. senator and Goldman Sachs chief executive. In this race, McMahon is the former chief executive and wealthy self-funder.
But Christie is a star who can generate crowds, even late on a workday afternoon in downtown Waterbury, and he knows the right notes to hit, repeatedly calling McMahon an independent-minded candidate.
“She will not be a handmaiden to the party bosses,” Christie said.
The other national Republicans who have campaigned with McMahon were brought here to deliver a similar message. In a rally for the women’s vote, McMahon stood with two moderate senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Sen. John McCain of Arizona made an appeal to veterans on her behalf last month.
Christie, who drew criticism for delivering a keynote speech during the Republican National Convention that was as much about him as Romney, took some time to tout his accomplishments in New Jersey, saying he confounded the “media talking heads” who predicted gridlock between a GOP governor and a Democratic legislature.
“Guess what, here’s livin’ proof that ain’t true,” Christie said.
Christie has been engaged in a feud-by-proxy with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, with each jabbing the other on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” over their differing approaches to inherited deficits.
The New Jersey governor has refused to raise taxes, instead making cuts and effectively taking out a big loan by deferring a $3 billion pension payment. Malloy raised taxes by $1.5 billion.
At his stop in Glastonbury, Christie told the crowd that Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, who introduced McMahon at the Waterbury rally, had proposed trading Malloy for Christie, with Murphy thrown in.
“Let me tell you something,” Christie said. “I can’t let you screw my home state like that. I just can’t.”