Storrs — In their first one-on-one debate Thursday, Republican U.S. Senate candidates Linda McMahon and Christopher Shays bashed each other's background and credentials for the job.
But it was Shays who lobbed the most ammunition, repeatedly attacking McMahon's professional wrestling business and "job creator" claims. McMahon, who resigned as WWE's chief executive in 2009 in her first run for the Senate, spent much of the debate steering the focus back to her six-point plan for fixing the nation's economy.
The hourlong event, hosted by the University of Connecticut, was also the first debate since McMahon won the Republican endorsement at last month's state GOP convention. Shays, who represented Fairfield County's 4th Congressional District from 1987 through 2008, finished second at the convention but qualified for an Aug. 14 primary.
His opening salvo on McMahon's career followed a moderator question about whether there exists a so-called Republican "war on women."
"I think that her business has a war on women," Shays said, and proceeded to describe one of the more provocative ring scenes in WWE history in which the candidate's husband, Vince McMahon, yelled orders. "I think when you force a woman to take off her clothes ... and sit down on the ground and bark like a dog, I think that's an assault on women."
McMahon responded that she was "very proud of the company that I helped grow." She gave variations of this defense throughout the debate but without addressing the substance of Shays' claims about professional wrestling, including his suggestion that some of the "business reasons" why she contributed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as recently as 2006 was "so the Democratic legislature wouldn't investigate steroid use in her business."
McMahon turned the other cheek and pivoted back to the main thrust of her campaign: that she's the candidate with the business acumen to fix the economy. "We need professionals from different walks of life," she said. "What we don't have in Washington are business people."
The early afternoon debate, sponsored by The Hartford Courant and FOX CT, was held in a UConn auditorium. The candidates stood behind twin podiums facing an audience of several dozen people.
Shays at one point invoked Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner after McMahon trumpeted her accomplishments in having built, developed and "reformed an industry."
"Hugh Hefner is a job creator," the former congressman said. "I don't want Hugh Hefner to be there (the Senate), and I don't want Linda McMahon there."
Switching to offense, McMahon said she is ready to help fix the country's economic and deficit problems created by longtime politicians such as Shays.
"You have been part of the issue of killing jobs, not creating jobs," she said. "What we need to see in Washington are senators who have not been there and been part of the mess that you made."
Shays deflected some of the attacks on his record by touting his independent streak in Congress and a base of experience that would allow him to get right to work: "As most people will tell you, I was part of the solution, not part of the problem."
He later continued: "What stuns me is she's free to talk about my record, but we can't talk about hers. She says she's a job creator but doesn't want to tell you about the jobs she's created."
Shays is considered the underdog in the GOP primary race. A Quinnipiac University poll this month not only had him trailing McMahon by 29 percentage points but upended his early claim to being the Republican candidate with the best shot at beating Democratic frontrunner U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy.
The new Quinnipiac numbers showed Murphy edging McMahon 46 percent to 43 percent in a Senate match-up and defeating Shays 45 percent to 37 percent.
The winner in November will replace Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz is challenging Murphy in the party's Aug. 14 primary.
Shays also criticized McMahon for declining invitations to at least two additional debates between now and the primary. One of them, a proposed July 31 debate at the Garde Arts Center in New London, was to be sponsored by The Day and WTNH-TV Channel 8, with timekeeping by The League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut.
Speaking to reporters, McMahon said she and Shays have done "plenty of debates," including those leading up to the convention.
"I could probably spend my days going up in the debates, but it's important to go out and listen to the people of Connecticut," McMahon said, referring to her schedule of business tours and get-togethers. "I think the best way for the people of Connecticut to get to know us is to be able to ask what they would want to ask us."
But Shays says McMahon is scared of the one-on-one debate format, as it is harder to rely on only scripted remarks. "Her knowledge is so thin — it's paper thin — and she wants to protect that," Shays said.
He also criticized McMahon for not offering more substantial answers about the professional wrestling business and the many performers who have died relatively young.
For her part, McMahon said she preferred to focus during the debate on the issues, particularly how to jump-start the economy.
"I'll tell you why I focus on the issues," she said. "It's because the people of Connecticut are focused on the issues that I kept coming back to. When I'm traveling around and meeting with people and having these coffees and conversations, they're not talking to me about WWE. They're talking to me about how their families are going to be secure. How they're going to have jobs.
"I'm going to stick to the issues because that's what's on the minds and in the hearts of the people of Connecticut," she said.