Republican candidates shrug off Dodd's exit, Blumenthal's arrival

Hartford - Reached on the phone, Rob Simmons confirms in the negative: No, he is not having a Job moment.

Twice in the past four months, the ground has shifted abruptly under the Stonington Republican who would be Connecticut's new junior senator, once with the entry of Linda McMahon into the party's primary race and again Wednesday, as the wounded Sen. Chris Dodd bowed out in favor of the popular Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

For a guy whose campaign had just traded a buzzing, neon-lit target for a narrow, elusive one, Simmons sounded upbeat on Thursday.

"We worked up a Plan B and the Plan B was based on the fact that whoever is being chosen by the Democrat Party to run is going to have to confront a whole series of issues that have been contentious over the course of the last year," Simmons said. "In other words, you can change the face, but you don't necessarily change the race."

Simmons isn't alone in that optimism.

In an appearance Thursday on the "Today" show, McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, brushed aside questions about whether Blumenthal's entry into the race was bad news for her candidacy.

McMahon acknowledged that it would be "a tough race" given Blumenthal's popularity, but remained blasé about Dodd's sudden decision to withdraw. "It was not a big surprise," she said.

But poll numbers released this week show the difficulty Republican challengers face. Both a survey by the Democratic Party-affiliated Public Policy Polling and an overnight sample by Rassmussen Reports show Blumenthal's entrance erasing the Republicans' gains on Dodd.

Both Simmons and McMahon had led Dodd in prospective head-to-head matchups in recent polls, and fellow challenger Peter Schiff had made inroads against the incumbent as well. But the new polls show Blumenthal with double-digit leads over the Republicans.

Still, Simmons did not sound worried.

The former three-term congressman argued much as his campaign's pollster had the day before: Blumenthal will ride high ratings into the race over the next few weeks, but will then descend into striking distance once his candidacy forces him to stake out policy positions on issues that have divided the nation, from the proper venue for punishing terrorism suspects to the structure of the health care reform bill now moving its way toward final passage in the Congress.

"We intend to engage him, and I think that may affect his standing, and certainly will affect the race," Simmons said.

Republicans see an opening in the area many Democrats see as Blumenthal's greatest strength - his nearly 20-year tenure as attorney general, during which time he has proudly pursued an aggressive, activist strategy on issues of regulation and consumer protection.

Blumenthal's opponents will try to turn the attorney general's ubiquity into a negative, said Chris Healy, the chairman of the Republican Party in Connecticut, before going on to compare Blumenthal to both the Phantom of the Opera and Woody Allen's "Zelig" within the space of two sentences.

"He exists merely to fill a void of cameras or microphones," Healy said. "Now that he's running for Senate, it involves a little more than spouting off on his usual topics."

At issue for voters are matters of war and peace, health care and the economy, Healy said.

"That's what he's got to respond to," the chairman said. "We're not electing him to find out if we can use our Bonanza steak cards after December 31st."

But a first swing at Blumenthal on Thursday appeared to catch only air.

Simmons noted in an interview that Blumenthal had recently embarked on an "assault against owners of wood stoves" and that the attorney general had called for them to be banned. But that charge, Blumenthal said, is "completely inaccurate and false, whether it was made inadvertently or not."

In fact, the attorney general's office released a statement calling for a ban on "outdoor, wood-burning furnaces" that are "drastically different from indoor wood stoves, which are certified under federal standards and therefore should not be banned."

Three Connecticut towns - Granby, Tolland and Hebron - already ban the devices, which have triggered neighborhood disputes over toxic emissions and are opposed by a number of groups, including the American Lung Association.

"Let me be perfectly clear," Blumenthal said. "I have never opposed wood stoves and do not now oppose wood stoves."

Simmons said he has learned to ride out the unexpected over his years in politics and reached for a metaphor that suggested a history he and Blumenthal share: Both are runners.

"I ran marathons," Simmons said in response to a question about how he would cope with the altered makeup of the Senate race. "I was a miler and a two-miler in college and ran cross-country. And the finish line is where you keep your eyeballs."

t.mann@theday.com

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