Senate candidates play the stupid card early

Dueling television and radio commercials seem likely to be the essence of Connecticut's U.S. Senate campaign between Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon, wrestling zillionaire McMahon having essentially infinite money for commercials but little ability to discuss issues when candidates have to think on their feet. Hence the candidates' first big exchange since winning their parties' primary elections - a stupid exchange.

McMahon began it with a commercial denouncing Murphy, congressman from the 5th District, for missing, several years ago, during his first term, most hearings held by the House committee dealing with the financial crisis. The ad speculated demagogically that Murphy may have been hanging out at the "plush secret congressional health club that you paid for."

Murphy replied with an ad touting his congressional vote participation record of 97 percent and rebutting the McMahon campaign's drumbeat that he lacks a "jobs plan." He noted that he had helped to arrange federal money to hire 75 people to clean up an industrial site in Waterbury, concluding: "That's not just a plan. That's real."

Then the McMahon campaign complained that the federal subsidy for those jobs was $200,000 each. And then the Journal Inquirer's Don Michak reported that a subsidy of $200,000 per job was exactly what McMahon's company, World Wrestling Entertainment, itself had accepted in state government tax credits for filmmaking.

Indignant as it was, Murphy's ad didn't really answer McMahon's attack on his attendance. While McMahon complained about attendance at congressional hearings, Murphy responded about votes.

It fell to former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican, to bring sense to the issue. The attendance of congressmen at hearings, Simmons told CTNewsJunkie.com, depends on the caliber of the witnesses, the knowledge a congressman already has, and other demands on his time. Congressmen often skip hearings, Simmons said, but not necessarily because they're loafing. Murphy claims to have made 129 of 132 committee votes and 1,854 of 1,875 House votes during the term at issue in the McMahon commercial.

But as the political rule goes, if you're explaining, you're losing, and the latest poll puts McMahon ahead for the first time, by 3 points. As her attack commercials increase, she soon may have half of Connecticut believing that Murphy shot down Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra during a congressional junket to Tahiti.

Meanwhile, after smearing Murphy the main objective of McMahon's campaign seems to be to guard the candidate against having to do her own explaining. In a "jobs tour" visit to a company in Manchester the other day, McMahon hid in her car for 15 minutes while a Journal Inquirer reporter waited to question her, having first had to tell a campaign advance man what he wanted to ask about. When McMahon finally left her car to enter the building, she evaded the question. A day earlier the Norwich Bulletin's Ray Hackett reported that he had been denied admission to McMahon's remarks to a lunch gathering of business people in Willimantic.

Having no qualification for office except her wealth, no core political beliefs, McMahon can't function without a script and isn't presentable if more than handshaking and chit-chat is required. Her campaign is a massive off-the-shelf operation. So the big question about her may be: Which consultants are writing the script?

Still, McMahon's shallowness may not mean that she is the inferior candidate. So far Murphy has been only a stereotypical liberal with a tendency to look like a smug and callow youth. The bashing he has begun to suffer from McMahon may relieve him of his smugness, but he doesn't have much time to start defining her as the rich but empty-headed former pornographer posing as a kindly grandmother before her ads define him with more distortion and trivia.

If people are angry and nihilistic enough, McMahon may suffice as the receptacle of protest votes. Many people are angry.

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