Senate candidates on the attack at debate

Throughout Thursday evening’s hour-long debate between U.S. Senate candidates Chris Murphy and Linda McMahon, neither candidate yielded an inch on topics including economic growth, foreign policy and personal character.

The debate, which came four days after the candidates’ first matchup last Sunday, was intended to focus primarily on the economy, government fiscal policy and foreign relations. Instead, the hour largely consisted of personal attacks between the candidates, reflecting the hostile tone the race has taken over the past several months. The election could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate and is currently considered a toss-up — some polls show 5th District Congressman Murphy leading while others claim a small advantage for former wrestling executive McMahon.

Both candidates came to the debate with high expectations, hoping to use the hour to pull ahead in the polls. To accomplish this, the two candidates needed to convey particular messages to voters, said Eastern Connecticut University political scientist William Salka.

McMahon “has to show that she’s comfortable talking about the issues,” Salka told the Hartford Courant Wednesday. He added that the Murphy campaign has been hurt by persistent attack ads from McMahon.

“Murphy’s problem was that his image had been defined by McMahon through her ads,” Salka said. “He needed to introduce himself to a statewide audience.”

Hosted at the University of Connecticut, the debate was jointly sponsored by the University of Connecticut, the Hartford Courant and Fox CT News.

The attacks started almost immediately after the debate commenced, with McMahon criticizing Murphy’s record as congressman. Throughout the debate, McMahon frequently referred to Connecticut’s unemployment rate of 9 percent — more than a point higher than the national average — and painted Murphy as the cause for Connecticut’s continued job stagnation.

“This morning, 170,000 people [in Connecticut] woke up without a job,” McMahon said repeatedly.

Murphy emphasized that he had a jobs plan that focused on manufacturing before moving on to criticize McMahon. Tying the former wrestling executive to the policies of the Bush Administration while also noting her personal fortune, Murphy said that McMahon planned to lower taxes for the wealthy while doing nothing for the middle class.

“Does it make sense to give Linda McMahon another $7 million tax break or does it make sense to decrease class sizes?” Murphy said.

Within 15 minutes, the candidates had largely turned to attacks on each other’s personal lives. McMahon suggested that Murphy was frequently absent from committees as a congressman and that he received a special interest rate on a loan from a bank in exchange for voting for the bank bailout in 2008. Murphy, in turn, suggested that as the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, McMahon failed to give wrestlers any benefits and let self-interest guide her business decisions.

After Murphy claimed that McMahon told a Tea Party group she would consider a “sunset” clause for Medicare, which would set a date on which Congress would be required to reenact the program for it to continue, the debate became intensely personal.

“You know you have to be honest,” McMahon said, turning to Murphy. “You’re not being honest.”

Throughout the debate, both candidates accused the other of trying to distort the campaign. Murphy was especially aggressive, accusing McMahon of focusing on personal attacks against him instead of the issues, claiming that a McMahon staffer had said that “talking about the issues would be senseless.”

This year marks McMahon’s second attempt at the office, having lost to Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 in 2010. Following two more debates, voters will make a final decision between Murphy and McMahon on Nov. 6.

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