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In the closing weeks of the hotly contested U.S. Senate race, Democrats and supporters of Richard Blumenthal are trying to convince voters that Republican Linda McMahon made her fortune pushing images that degrade women and potentially promote domestic violence.
They're doing it with McMahon's own product: a succession of jarring clips culled from years of television programming produced by World Wrestling Entertainment.
The video clips are circulated by state party officials to the media and supporters, denounced in conference calls and cited as the primary reason that polls show Blumenthal leading McMahon by a wide margin among female voters.
The Blumenthal campaign appeared to have pushed too far on Friday, when a leaked e-mail from one of the attorney general's campaign staffers showed that the campaign was looking for "worst of WWE + women photos" to give to Planned Parenthood for a "hit" the group was planning against McMahon.
That leak prompted a complaint from the Connecticut Republican Party to the Federal Election Commission charging that the Blumenthal campaign had improperly coordinated with an outside entity on electioneering materials.
The Blumenthal campaign's finance attorney, Marc Elias of Washington-based Perkins Coie, said the FEC allows campaigns to cooperate with independent groups on some functions, such as news releases, news conferences and endorsements. The FEC's ban on coordination is aimed at radio and TV ad spots, not at Internet-based communications, Elias said.
"The FEC rules are quite clear that that's permissible," Elias said. "The FEC was quite proud about this rule-making. It was a bipartisan effort to make clear that these types of communications were not going to get caught up in FEC rule-making."
A McMahon spokesman and Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman, both disputed that interpretation of the rule.
But the Republicans' complaint also revived attention to the underlying issue of WWE's depictions of female characters, particularly before 2008, when the company changed its television programming standards to comply with the TV-PG rating.
That programming, Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said recently, has "marketed such violence against women to kids."
"The worst part about it from my perspective is that she has made hundreds of millions of dollars on this trashing of women and violence and rape," DiNardo said, referring to some of the WWE skits that Democrats have singled out for scorn. "She's now using these profits to whitewash her record and say that she's qualified to be a U.S. Senator and represent women in D.C., and that is just absolutely wrong, from my perspective."
But WWE officials, along with the McMahon campaign, say such criticisms are wrong.
Unflattering or even cruel depictions of female characters are as valid as in any other form of entertainment, they say, and the Democrats who now make a show of denouncing the WWE are being hypocritical.
As part of its new "Stand Up for WWE" promotional campaign, the company sent out a news release last week reminding readers that a succession of Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have used the company's programs as a platform to reach voters.
The company's critics' retort is simple: Look at the videos.
In one 2001 clip, McMahon's husband, Vince, playing the overbearing, mercurial boss that is his standard character, orders a WWE wrestler, Trish Stratus, to drop to her hands and knees and bark like a dog. The skit arose from a story line in which Stratus was said to be having an affair with McMahon's character.
As the skit continues, McMahon demands that Stratus, who is pretending to cry, strip to her underwear to express contrition and eventually draws boos from the crowd when he does not order her to bare her breasts.
As the skit concludes, Stratus beseeches McMahon: "Mr. McMahon, not even you know how far I would degrade myself for the right cause."
The skit, said McMahon's campaign spokesman, is just that: a skit.
"Robert DeNiro has played characters that were abusive to women, but he isn't considered a misogynist or anti-woman," said Ed Patru. "Why? Because he did that while playing a character designed to illicit negative emotions among viewers. That is the difference between real life and entertainment."
Democrats have taken more than $50 million from movie, TV and music executives over the past two election cycles, Patru said, and only now "become righteously indignant about WWE."
"Much of what comes out of Hollywood in terms of entertainment pits a protagonist against an antagonist, or good against evil, or a hero against a villain," he said. "And generally the villains behave badly and even despicably. That's what villains do."
A WWE spokesman, Robert Zimmerman, noted that all of the company's programming has been rated TV-PG since June 2008 (its Friday night "Smackdown" program already was).
"In the past, much like many other shows at the time, WWE engaged in what was known as 'sensationalized TV' in a TV-14 environment," the company said in a statement. "Since then, WWE has made a full transition to TV-PG content and storylines, while nearly half of all programming on television remains TV-14 between 9-11pm on general entertainment networks."
"They're focusing on content from years ago," Zimmerman said. "They want to keep on living in the past, but for WWE, the company has evolved. The reality is, let's talk about the here and now."
Critics of the WWE are not so willing to let bygones be bygones. They point to incidents of staged violence and demeaning, sexually suggestive stunts as not just offensive but potentially influential to young wrestling fans.
"We have worked very hard over the years to promote the best interests of women, from the Domestic Violence Task Force, which I was part of, to health benefits, and I think that everything that Linda McMahon stands for goes directly against that," said state Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden, in a recent conference call with reporters.
"We have an obligation to protect our children and understand that this is not the way you treat women," Abercrombie said. "And to have someone like that represent us in Washington, truthfully, I'm appalled that she's even a candidate."
To link to the aforementioned video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMh3UQKSyf8