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Storrs — U.S. Senate hopefuls Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy squared off Thursday on foreign policy, Bush-era tax cuts, personal finances and the plethora of "character assaults" in this year's race during the second of their four one-on-one debates.
Yet they covered little new ground.
Murphy, currently the state's 5th Congressional District representative, appeared to draw the warmer response from the debate audience of several hundred inside the University of Connecticut's Jorgensen Center. The three-term congressman claimed throughout the evening that McMahon, a Republican, is "addicted to personal attacks."
The audience applauded when Murphy called for more substantive talk in the race and fewer attacks. And at one point in the evening, McMahon was laughed briefly and then booed by some audience members.
The boos followed McMahon's response to Murphy's assertion that he had handled his past financial troubles — late mortgage, rent and car tax payments — more admirably than McMahon had when she and her husband, Vince, discharged their debt in a 1976 personal bankruptcy.
Murphy said that McMahon "ran away" from the nearly $1 million in obligations until the list of creditors surfaced last month — and only then repaid some of them for political reasons.
"For 36 years, she's been pulling in salaries of $30 million, $40 million a year and still couldn't bring herself to pay back the people of Connecticut she owed," Murphy said of the former WWE executive.
"Well, I did eventually pay," McMahon replied.
"Thirty-six years later," Murphy retorted. McMahon responded: "But I did it with my money. You got a special loan from the bank. You got a special loan."
That last remark from McMahon — interpreted as personal assault — prompted a mix of booing and clapping.
The candidates presented a clear contrast on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for high-earning individuals and families.
Murphy said the tax cuts for those earning $250,000 or more a year should be allowed to expire on Jan. 1. But he is for making the Bush tax cuts affecting the middle class permanent.
McMahon argued that the economy is still too weak to raise taxes on anyone, but said she would consider raising taxes on high earners in later years "as long as those taxes are used to pay down the debt and the deficit."
On a foreign policy question, Murphy said he believes the country should be "more stingy" in deploying resources abroad. He described how he disagrees with President Obama's timeline for withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Murphy wants the troops home much sooner.
McMahon criticized Obama for announcing that the country has a timeline for troop withdrawal. But said she supports the president's timetable. She called for careful use of troops abroad in general, and said she adheres to the idea of "peace through strength" when it comes to the country's military.
Murphy mentioned his "Buy American" legislation efforts and said that despite McMahon's repeated claims to the contrary, he indeed has a plan for creating jobs and economic growth.
"Linda McMahon should stop staying that I don't," he said.
McMahon disagreed. She also blamed Murphy for having contributed to the nation's debt problems and stubbornly high unemployment rate.
"'Buy American' is a slogan, it's not a plan," McMahon said, later noting that Murphy twice voted against his own Buy American provisions that were in defense spending bills.
McMahon vowed several times that she would be an "independent thinker" in the U.S. Senate, criticizing Murphy for "trying to paint me in the corner" as a Republican who would empower a right-wing agenda.
"Why are all these Republican senators coming to Connecticut to campaign for Linda McMahon?" Murphy said. "It's because they know she's … the 51st vote for a Tea Party majority in the Senate."
"It's time to elect a senator who's a job creator with a real plan," McMahon said in her closing remarks. "We don't need another senator whose primary aspiration is a political career."
The Day is sponsoring the candidates' third debate at 7 p.m. Monday in the Garde Arts Center in New London.
Thursday night's debate was sponsored by The Hartford Courant and FOX CT. It was broadcast live on television and radio.