HARTFORD—Let's get the wrestling metaphor out of the way: There were no killer holds on display at Monday night's debate between Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon. * Instead, both candidates for U.S. Senate emerged as sturdier versions of the selves that they have worked so hard to define. Blumenthal, the state's attorney general for the past two decades, is the dedicated public servant who has "spent my life," he told the audience, "trying to help people." And McMahon, the determined businesswoman who built the World Wrestling Entertainment empire with her husband, wants to go to Washington just so she can "create jobs."
The candidates represent a "clear choice," a phrase each repeated, in terms of policy as well as experience. He is ready to vote to extend the Bush tax cut to all but the top 2 percent of earners. She wants to extend the cuts for the wealthiest as well as the middle class. He supports the health care bill. She wants to repeal it. No doubt they would vote differently in the Senate on everything from immigration to judicial appointments. But for this election, they're both tacking to the center. On my way out of the Bushnell Performing Arts Center, I heard two people joke that it was hard to tell which candidate was from which party. Certainly, the two competed over the number of times they could insert the words "small business" into every answer.
Blumenthal distanced himself from his party by criticizing President Obama's bailout of Wall Street and the stimulus: Both were flawed by "inadequate accountability," he said. McMahon, on the other hand, defended her support for the bailout. Then she backed so far away from the suggestion that she favors lowering the minimum wage, as a new Blumenthal ad claims, that she clambered onto the ground her opponent was standing on. "We've taken the same position," McMahon said of the minimum wage. "We both say we should take a look at it."
In the best exchanges of the night, Blumenthal and McMahon asked each other direct questions. "Why have you and WWE bought your products in China, Pakistan, and other countries?" Blumenthal asked, referring to the fact that many WWE-licensed toys are not made in the United States. McMahon had an admirably straight answer: "Because we do not have the kind of policies here that are conducive to manufacturing." But then she reverted to the shopworn Republican solution of lowering the corporate tax rate, noting that it's only 12 percent in Ireland. Blumenthal's dig in response was equally rote: "Linda McMahon has to be held accountable for those choices she made that deprived American workers of jobs by sending them overseas."
In her question to Blumenthal, McMahon tried for a gotcha moment. "I'm very proud that I've created more than 600 jobs in the state of Connecticut," she said. "How many jobs have you created?"
Blumenthal started slow in his answer, and I thought she had him. Then he picked up momentum with specifics about how he'd saved jobs as attorney general by preventing GM from closing an auto dealership. "I know about how government can help preserve jobs," he said.
"Government, government, government," McMahon retorted. "Government does not make jobs. It's very simple. An entrepreneur takes a risk."
"I'm not going to be an entrepreneur as a senator," Blumenthal shot back, winning a brief explosion of muffled laughter before the audience remembered it had been told to keep quiet. Blumenthal gave a small shy grin. McMahon did not.
A few minutes later, Blumenthal had to face the inevitable question about his misleading statements about his military record. (He suggested that he served in Vietnam rather than stateside.) This is the subject of a new McMahon attack ad that ends in an ominous voice-over: "If he lied about Vietnam, what else is he lying about?"
Blumenthal was ready for it. "There is nothing new in this ad," he said. "I'm proud of my military service. On a few occasions out of hundreds I described it inaccurately. I regret it. I take full responsibility for it. It was not intentional, but that is no excuse. I want to say that I'm sorry."
Later, it was Blumenthal's turn to go on the offensive. He accused McMahon of taking $10 million in tax credits while laying off 10 percent of WWE's workforce. "There's a certain irony in my opponent talking about health care because she denies it to the wrestlers," Blumenthal said. "Her company is under investigation for denying health care to her employees."
McMahon angrily responded that WWE's independent contractors do in fact have health care coverage for accidents in the ring. She continued, "I find it a little bit unusual, maybe it's just a coincidence, that in the 20 some years WWE has been in Connecticut, we've never been investigated or fined. This is the only time, and it was just after this campaign got going."
Instead of ratcheting up the dispute, Blumenthal got all huffy and lawyerly. "As you well know, my jurisdiction is exclusively civil," he said, not making clear that he was talking about his scope of duties as attorney general. "The allegations against WWE are criminal in nature." Oh well, at least he got the word criminal in there. And in his closing statement, Blumenthal inched closer to exploiting a serious McMahon weakness that he's previously left to the media: The deaths of a series of young WWE wrestlers, perhaps (probably?) in connection with the illegal use of steroids encouraged by the sport. "My opponent has built her fortune while putting profits ahead of people—even now, she refuses to recognize that steroids can cause long-term health problems," Blumenthal said.
As we filed out, the consensus among the political journalists around me was that nothing in this debate would change the minds of voters, few of whom appear to be up for grabs in Connecticut, anyhow. Most polls show a close race, although Nate Silver is betting heavily on Blumenthal, given the small number of undecideds. (And here's a new poll that shows Blumenthal up by 12 points.) If Blumenthal's edge is solid, then he probably did well enough. In politics, if not always in wrestling, you can win by not losing.
Correction, Oct. 5, 2010: This article originally stated the debate was on a Tuesday. (Return to the corrected sentence.)