Peter Schiff tackling McMahon momentum

Peter Schiff
Peter Schiff

Stratford - The Gadsden flags - the ones that say "Don't Tread on Me" - are out and waving at the corner of Barnum Avenue and Main Street when Peter Schiff arrives for the weekly demonstration of the Stratford Tea Party Patriots.

Striding to the crowd of a little less than two dozen people gathered at the busy corner, Schiff's fiancee, Martha O'Brien, stops for a moment and drags the long-shot Republican Senate nominee back a few paces to admire the three identical bumper stickers on the back of a blue SUV.

"Schiff Happens," they say. O'Brien, who came up with the slogan, requests a photo.

Schiff is trying to gather by the June 8 deadline the 8,268 petition signatures he needs to force a primary with Linda McMahon, the former pro-wrestling executive who is the Republican Party's endorsed candidate to challenge Democrat Richard Blumenthal for the U.S. Senate.

Schiff's also got a taping of WFSB-TV's "Face the State" to attend to, and he walks like a man on a schedule.

If the inside of the Connecticut Convention Center last Friday was McMahon's home court - and as delegates shifted her way to roars from a friendly crowd, it sure felt like it - the strip of grass here by the fast-food restaurant, the gas station, the shopping complex and the bank seems to be Schiff's.

Cars speed by, but a surprisingly steady stream of them beep their horns and emit shouts of solidarity. A tractor-trailer gives a blatting blast. A woman making the left off of Barnum up onto Main careens perilously close to the curb, steering with one hand while raising her own small Gadsden flag up through the sunroof of the black Mercedes SUV.

"Too bad we can't get these cars that are going by to sign our petitions," Schiff says with a chuckle.

Asked how the signature-gathering is going, he remarks that the campaign is "bringing in some professionals" from out of state to finish the job by the deadline.

"It's hard to even hire people," Schiff says. "Figured it'd be easy with all these unemployed people. They'd just as soon collect unemployment benefits, I guess."

By the reckoning of seemingly everyone who hasn't slapped on a "Schiff Happens" bumper sticker, written a pro-Schiff letter to the editor, or forwarded a YouTube clip of Schiff anticipating - against the derision of his questioners - the eventual collapse of the housing market on cable financial shows, Linda McMahon will face Richard Blumenthal in November to decide who will succeed Sen. Chris Dodd in the Senate.

McMahon's strongest rival, former Rep. Rob Simmons of Stonington, left the race this week, leaving behind a core of frustrated backers who believe, like Simmons himself, that Republican delegates and power brokers chose the free-spending self-funder McMahon over the candidate with a track record of public service and a resume that compares well to the popular Blumenthal, especially after Blumenthal's misstatements of his Vietnam-era service record.

But Schiff and his supporters insist that only he has a chance of beating Blumenthal in the fall. McMahon's experience as the chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, the source of her fortune and of what controversies have so far visited her campaign, is more liability than asset, Schiff said in an interview. He noted the finding in a new Quinnipiac University poll that more voters looked unfavorably on McMahon (39 percent) than favorably (32 percent) in the May 27 poll.

"She spent $16 million, and Blumenthal's still beating her by 25 points, even with the lies about Vietnam," Schiff said, referring to the results of the Quinnipiac poll. "So I don't think she can win."

No previous political experience

Schiff, who runs the investment company Euro-Pacific Capital and like McMahon has no previous political experience, concedes the finding that a whopping 78 percent of voters don't know enough about him to make a judgment. But if he can succeed in reducing that name-recognition deficit, Schiff contends the small, fervent minority who do like him could swell into a force large enough to defeat Blumenthal, who for years has been one of the most popular public officials in the state.

"If I can increase my name recognition, and I get the same kind of favorables-to-unfavorables with the new people that meet me, then I've got a chance to beat Dick Blumenthal," he said. "The problem is, she's already had her chance, she's spent the money, everybody knows who she is, and they still don't support her."

A McMahon spokesman declined, via e-mail, to address Schiff's remarks.

The Schiff fans in attendance were adamant that their candidate could win.

"I believe with enough exposure, he could," said Eino Hautala of Milford, an interior trim-carpentry contractor who said he was involving himself in a political race for the first time. "Of course, it's a big challenge, Blumenthal's got the name recognition, big-time name recognition, so that's going to be a big hurdle for that reason."

Would Schiff really stand a better chance of beating Blumenthal than McMahon?

"Absolutely," Hautala said. "I don't think McMahon has a chance."

"People ask me how best to describe Peter Schiff," said Palin Smith, whose business card identified him as the state liaison and videographer of the Hartford Tea Party Patriots.

(He politely corrected a reporter who suggested that his first name must be a hit at Tea Party rallies: "To some people," Smith said of the name he shares with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, "it's not as popular as it used to be.")

Of Schiff, Smith said he asked questioners, "Do you know who Abraham Lincoln was? Do you know who Ronald Reagan was? Do you know who Albert Einstein was?"

"A lot of people don't remember that one, but some of them do," he said, referring to Einstein. "And I say 'Well you take all those three, put 'em in a 47-year-old man's body, you've got Peter Schiff.' Smartest man I've ever met."

But will he be on the ballot?

Despite his stated need for name recognition, Schiff notably would not say he plans to turn to television advertising to raise his profile.

"Not right this second," he said. "Right now we've got to get on the ballot. Let's get on the ballot first, and then I'm going to map out a strategy for TV, depending on how much money I have."

Until that point, Schiff is relying on the premise that voters who go to the Republican polls will not resemble the Republican die-hards who attended and voted in the party convention, many of whom switched votes from Schiff, and Simmons, to McMahon to secure her the endorsement and the inside track to the nomination.

"Since I dont think she's going to win anyway, and the money might work against her, why not go with me?" he said. "At least go down swinging. At least put up the candidate you believe in, and give the Republicans somebody to vote for, instead of just somebody to vote against. It's all going to be 'Let's vote for Linda to block Blumy.' How about 'Let's vote for Peter, because we want to'?"

t.mann@theday.com

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