Factions stir up emotions prior to McMahon-Murphy meeting

New London - Armed with bullhorns, signs and firm-seated beliefs, hundreds of union members and supporters rallied Monday afternoon for Senate candidate Chris Murphy prior to the Democrat's debate with Republican Linda McMahon at the Garde Arts Center.

McMahon, a former WWE executive from Greenwich who also ran for the seat in 2010, had plenty of supporters of her own to counter the Democrats planned rally. Recent polls have showed the candidates running a close race in the seat for retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Attacks by the two candidates in the press, on televised advertisements and during a debate Sunday morning have become increasingly confrontational as Election Day draws near.

Outside the Garde, supporters flooded the corner of State and Huntington streets before the 7 p.m. debate. Organizers expected a large crowd to fill the 1,400-seat auditorium.

From a stage in front of the 1784 courthouse on Huntington Street, State Rep. Ernest Hewett led the crowd in a cheer of "Fired up, ready to go!" for Murphy, who currently serves as a congressman from the state's 5th District. Standing in front of a sign that said "Chris Murphy: Fighting For Us," Hewett said it was the biggest political rally he'd seen in downtown New London in years.

"This is how we do it in New London, man," he said. "You have to hand it to labor because each one of these guys represents one working family."

McMahon supporters across the street countered with boos and catcalls of "We can't hear you" and "Go Linda!" while using bullhorns of their own to try to drown out the Democratic union leaders and representatives that filed on stage to rile up the crowd.

"Send Linda back to WWE!" one union leader bellowed from on stage. "We don't need her, we don't want her, we don't like her!"

Another Murphy supporter held a sign that read "McMahon wants to send American jobs to Chyna," an apparent reference to former wrestling "diva" Chyna.

Two McMahon supporters from Waterford painted their chests and wore Norwegian flags across their backs, a reference to a recent revelation that Murphy in a television advertisement showed a foreign-built submarine when discussing keeping jobs at the Groton-based Electric Boat. Another McMahon supporter held a "Buy Norwegian" poster, another reference to the sub gaffe and play on Murphy's "Buy American" plan.

A red Subaru covered in "Linda" stickers and signs circled the block, honking its horn and waving to supporters. Another McMahon supporter held a life-size cutout of the movie character Ferris Bueller with a dialogue balloon from his mouth reading "Murphy? Murphy? Murrrrrphy?" in a reference to the movie's famous line.

Welcoming the crowd to New London, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio introduced Murphy, who addressed the rally before entering the Garde.

"We don't want a senator who fights for the 1 percent, we want a senator who will fight for the 100 percent," Finizio declared as Murphy took the microphone around 6 p.m.

"I'm going to go over there and kick some butt!" Murphy said before he left the stage. A large crowd followed as he crossed the intersection and onto the sidewalk, where he broke through a line of McMahon supporters holding huge "Linda" signs. Shoving and pushing ensued and sharp words exchanged as the crowd wrestled its candidate towards the Garde's front door.

Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director, said he expected the crowd to be similar to when the center hosted Lieberman during a 2006 debate. By 6:30, 600 people had entered the auditorium.

"This has national focus, too, so this should get a lot of people," Sigel said.

By 6:45, the crowd had dispersed. Campaign workers from each side either broke down the stage or cleaned up discarded signs. The rowdy throng of some 400 people had filed in, ready to hear from the candidates themselves.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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