Published October 04. 2010 7:27PM Updated October 04. 2010 9:29PM
Hartford -- The first debate of the U.S. Senate election between Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon was expected to turn scrappy.
It didn't disappoint, but on Monday night, some of the sharpest barbs came in unexpected places.
Blumenthal, a nearly 20-year incumbent in the office of the attorney general, waited until the very end of the debate to raise the specter of steroid abuse, which has been investigated by federal authorities and the U.S. Congress in World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., the company where McMahon and her family made their fortune.
Moderators played McMahon's latest advertisement denouncing Blumenthal for repeatedly misstating his military service during the Vietnam War -- when he served in the Marine Corps Reserve, but remained stateside and never saw combat -- but McMahon herself largely pulled punches on the subject, hammering Blumenthal instead as a bureaucrat unfamiliar with the ways of business and the plight of working people.
While McMahon's aggressive campaign spending has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats, it was the Republican who took the hardest shot about wealth. If Blumenthal agreed to stop "counting my money," McMahon said, "and I won't talk about the fact your family owns the Empire State Building."
Blumenthal hammered McMahon about jobs and trade, including the fact that the merchandise sold by the WWE is manufactured in China. And he slammed McMahon for a campaign blunder last week, when McMahon would not rule out reductions or other changes to the federal minimum wage, answering a question about whether the wage should be reduced with a long answer saying that option was something the Congress should "look at."
The McMahon campaign quickly clarified her position, saying the candidate would "absolutely" not support lowering the current $7.25 minimum, and was instead intending to suggest she would be cautious about future increases, but labor officials, Democrats and now Blumenthal have leaped on the comments to suggest McMahon is insensitive to the needs of working families.
The candidates clashed Monday night on the subject of jobs, and especially government's role in increasing employment. McMahon said Blumenthal's instincts showed a predilection to "grow government," an approach she called a failure in the Obama administration's stimulus package.
But when McMahon gave a lengthy answer about the mindset and needs of entrepreneurs, Blumenthal chided that that wasn't the job each is running for.
"I am not going to be an entrepreneur as a senator," he said, drawing a chuckle in the crowded hall at the Bushnell Theater, just across the street from the Capitol.
Coming into the debate, two new opinion polls appeared to show good news for Blumenthal. After previous polls showed the Senate race in a statistical dead heat, the Blumenthal leaped at a pair of new surveys that showed the candidate with a larger lead.
Before the evening began, crowds of campaign volunteers stood along Capitol Avenue through the afternoon, many holding up signs bearing Blumenthal's or McMahon's name.
Most of the staffers, particularly McMahon's, refused to speak to reporters, declining to explain their support for the Republican challenger.
Robert Hoff of East Haven was holding a large white Blumenthal sign, and said he was backing the Democrat -- and opposing McMahon -- based on their respective records of work on behalf of the disabled.
"What has McMahon ever done to help somebody with a disability in this state?" said Hoff, who sits on a local commission that monitors compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Blumenthal has been a friend to the every-man," Hoff said, adding that he did not think McMahon's new advertising push highlighting Blumenthal's misstatement of his military record.
"He hasn't lied about it," Hoff insisted. "In fact, he has actually stood up and he has answered for that. It takes a big man to apologize for his errors."
But McMahon supporters, even the man who once was her foe in the Republican primary, said they thought the Republican might have carried the evening, largely because she projected competence and confidence, and Blumenthal did not do serious damage.
"I think she won," said former U.S. Congressman Rob Simmons, who McMahon defeated in the primary. "She just had to survive. And she did that."