Danbury — U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visited the state Monday to join Linda McMahon and two of her former primary opponents in making the case for electing Connecticut's first Republican senator in three decades.
"I'm incredibly proud to stand next to Senator John McCain," McMahon said at a veterans' hall here. "He's an independent thinker in the Senate, I'm an independent thinker, and I think we'd make a great team."
The midday event was the first time that both former Republican congressmen and one-time Senate hopefuls, Rob Simmons of Stonington and Christopher Shays of Fairfield County, shared a public stage with McMahon since losing to her.
Now McMahon and Democrat Chris Murphy, the current 5th Congressional District representative, are polling neck-and-neck in the November race to succeed Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring.
"This is a hot race," said Simmons, a Stonington resident. "John McCain wouldn't be here if he didn't think there was an opportunity here."
Addressing the packed veterans' hall, McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, delivered crowd-pleasing humor followed by searing critiques of President Obama's "feckless" and "disgraceful" foreign policy and his handling of the economy.
"The perception in the Middle East is that the United States is weak and withdrawing," McCain said. "Osama bin Laden once said there is a strong horse and a weak horse, and people will go with the strong horse. We are viewed as the weak horse, that's why we need new leadership in Washington."
The five-term senator said the country needs McMahon. "We need someone who understands what it's like to be fiscal conservative," he said.
Connecticut has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1982, when Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Old Lyme won. McCain previously endorsed fellow maverick Shays over McMahon in this year's primary. Asked by reporters about his earlier allegiance, McCain replied that he came to Connecticut to unite behind the party's nominee.
"I'm here because I believe this is a very winnable and important race," he said. "We also need more women in the Republican Senate who understand our economy and the free enterprise system and what business and deficits are all about."
Simmons introduced McCain to the crowd, estimated at more than 200, noting how the senator spent time in New London as a boy while his father, John S. McCain Jr., commanded submarines in World War II. The senator thanked Simmons for the ringing introduction.
"I feel a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth husband," McCain joked. "On their wedding night [he] said I know what I'm supposed to do, I just don't know how to make it interesting."
McCain went on: "I thank you Rob for not mentioning that I was defeated in 2008. After I lost I slept like a baby — sleep two hours, woke up and cried. Sleep two hours, woke up and cried."
Simmons, who finished a distant second to McMahon in the GOP's three-way Senate primary in 2010, said after the event that despite that hard-fought battle, there is nothing extraordinary about him now lending McMahon full support.
"I'm a Republican. She is a Republican candidate," Simmons said. "John McCain ran against Mitt Romney four years ago, as I recall, in the primary. It seems like he's supporting him now. That's how the political process works."
Shays, the former Fairfield County congressman who lost by a wide margin in the August primary, said he too is united behind McMahon and has changed his mind about her chances on Nov. 6.
"I think that Chris Murphy is incredibly vulnerable, and I didn't think this before, but I think Linda can win this race," Shays told The Day. "I gave it my best fight, I dearly would have loved to be campaigning against Chris Murphy, but she's the candidate and she's the one who needs to win, and that's why I'm here."
McCain and Simmons both declared that McMahon would be better for southeastern Connecticut, the submarine base and Electric Boat than Murphy. Simmons faulted Murphy for having twice voted against defense spending bills this year that contained funding for two-per-year production of Virginia-class submarines. Murphy has said he opposed those bills because of their open-ended timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, voted for the defense bills, as did Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, whose district includes major defense contractors.
"This guy's running for the Senate; you're supposed to represent the whole state, not just District 5," Simmons said. "You have to have your head in the sand not to realize that we got 41,000 jobs and $5 billion revenue at stake, and that if my part of the state did not have Electric Boat, we'd be a basket case."
Murphy says he is the Senate candidate who would best support Connecticut's defense jobs. On Monday his campaign accused McCain of having led efforts for the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission that nearly resulted in the closure of the Groton sub base, and cited McCain's efforts in the 1990s to kill the U.S. Navy's Seawolf sub program that was crucial for EB.
"It's surprising that Linda McMahon would campaign on Connecticut defense jobs with the Republican senator who tried to shut down Electric Boat and destroy the local economy," Murphy spokesman Ben Marter said. "The truth is that Chris Murphy voted against the defense sequestration bill that Senator McCain supported and is fighting to save local defense jobs that are being held hostage by the right-wing Republicans Linda McMahon is running for the Senate to support."
Speaking to reporters, McCain denied responsibility for Groton showing up on the 2005 BRAC list and said he never lobbied against the Seawolf subs.
"The fact is that I was very worried about cost overruns, and all of us are worried about cost overruns, just as we are about the F-35 and the new aircraft carrier," McCain said.
Earlier in the day, a small group of Murphy supporters gathered outside McMahon's North Haven campaign headquarters to protest a remark she made in April about Social Security during a candidates' forum in Waterford hosted by the 2nd District Tea Party Patriots. Responding to a question about Social Security, McMahon said she believes future changes to the program should be a bipartisan effort and not affect current retirees.
She also said, "I believe in sunset provisions when we pass this kind of legislation, so that you take a look at it 10, 15 years down the road to make sure that it's still going to fund itself."
The Huffington Post recently posted video footage and a story about McMahon's "sunset provision" remarks and questioned whether she favors ending the old-age insurance program.
McMahon's campaign says her remarks were taken out of context and insist McMahon has no desire to retire Social Security, although she supports long-term reform efforts.