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Some debate tips for McMahon vs. Murphy

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 09/30/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 09/29/2012 10:38 PM

The debate season for Connecticut's U.S. Senate race is fast approaching, with the candidates scheduled to face off next Sunday in a television studio debate.

That will be followed closely by an Oct. 11 debate at the University of Connecticut, then one Oct. 15 at the Garde Arts Center in New London, co-sponsored by The Day.

The debates should be especially interesting since Linda McMahon has run such an aggressive campaign, successfully keeping her Republican candidacy in play in a blue state like Connecticut.

It's only recently that Chris Murphy, getting some sharp counsel from worried Democratic operatives in Washington, has pulled ahead, where he was long expected to be, in the polls.

Still, the debates are going to be a watershed for U.S. Rep. Murphy and his first bid for statewide office. He can't give an inch.

McMahon has proven herself to be an accomplished pro at debating.

After all, it's how she and her husband, Vince McMahon, built a fortune with their wrestling business: projecting contrived and entertaining personas on television.

Indeed, in her debates earlier this year with former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who eventually got a big thumbs down from Republican primary voters, McMahon successfully played the mild-mannered grandmother, surprised and mildly offended by her opponent's sharp attacks.

It was hard, while watching a subdued and friendly Linda McMahon the candidate, to remember McMahon the actress in televised scenes from the wrestling ring, delivering a kick to the groin of an opponent or dropping to the mat after taking a slap across the face from her own daughter.

McMahon can play any role she wants, and do it well.

If I were Murphy, I would avoid becoming too shrill or harsh. Shays' pointed attacks based on the sordid history of WWE - the drug-addled or dead wrestlers, the company's denial of medical benefits to them - seemed to slide right off a smiling candidate McMahon.

She returned the assault with a wan smile and a little shake of the head, not unlike Ronald Reagan's: "There he goes again."

You have to be careful in attacking grandma, and that's an image of herself McMahon has successfully burnished in the minds of many voters, with her long television advertising blitz.

And yet Murphy needs to correct the record on a lot of fronts.

He needs to sharply deny McMahon's lying attack about how he voted to cut $716 billion from Medicare. In fact, the $716 billion was part of price reductions Medicare providers agreed to make as part of Obamacare.

It's $716 billion in savings, not cuts to recipients, and it's especially egregious that McMahon, who not long ago suggested a sunset on Social Security, would obscure her opponent's position on entitlements since she has long avoided even discussing them, saying they shouldn't be part of a political campaign.

Murphy also needs to keep McMahon leashed to the rest of the national Republican ticket - especially the two very rich white guys at the top who promise to help keep taxes low for wealthy taxpayers like McMahon.

I would doubt that McMahon will go much on the offensive. She clearly prefers to leave the nasty and harsh attacks, the dirty business of swift-boating Murphy, to the people she generously pays to be hostile. Grandma herself is always polite.

Nevertheless, expect McMahon to roll out the centerpiece of her campaign, the attack on Murphy for missing rent and mortgage payments and taking out a home equity loan at a bank that supported his campaign for Congress.

Murphy needs to politely remind voters that the loan, at competitive prices, was for less than most people borrow to buy a car, hardly the grist of scandal. He needs to also explain that McMahon's bankruptcy was the result not of youthful indiscretion but a series of reckless investments in a stunt motorcycle act, a horse farm in Colchester and a cement plant in eastern Connecticut.

The McMahons stiffed creditors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for decades until it finally became expedient to pay them back, as part of a Senate campaign.

McMahon would be wise to stick with her successful debate persona, smile a lot and stay on script.

But then she doesn't need anyone to tell her that. She's very practiced at it.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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