Connecticut's off-again, on-again Senate race has bedeviled prognosticators, but Republican nominee Linda McMahon has now firmly forced the seat back into the competitive column by making it a referendum on the character of Democratic rival and longtime state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
Mrs. McMahon has whittled down what had once seemed like an insurmountable 40 percentage-point deficit to 10 points by questioning Mr. Blumenthal's credibility on his military service and now on his campaign finances. The Blumenthal camp insists the Democrat's 20-year record of going after tobacco firms and pharmaceutical companies will win over voters in the end.
It's still Mr. Blumenthal's race to lose, said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, while joking that the Democrat has "done an awful lot to lose it so far."
While Mr. Blumenthal bided his time during the often brutal GOP primary, his camp is showing why the race is expected to be a bare-knuckle battle by trying to use Mrs. McMahon's tenure as the top executive at World Wrestling Entertainment against her. His supporters have cited racy storylines, premature deaths, steroid abuse and other scandals associated with the professional wrestling franchise.
"Linda McMahon is trying to whitewash her record," said Mindy Myers, Mr. Blumenthal's campaign manager. "She's earned millions at the expense of the health and safety of her workers and by marketing violent and sexually explicit material to children. Now, she's trying to buy herself a Senate seat with a $50 million attack machine offering Connecticut voters the worst of politics as usual. Even voters in her own party aren't buying it."
Republicans first started targeting the seat last year, when longtime Democratic incumbent Sen. Christopher J. Dodd was still seeking re-election. But with polls showing him severely damaged by personal scandals, Mr. Dodd dropped out in January and Mr. Blumenthal, long seen as Mr. Dodd's heir apparent, promptly entered the race to succeed him.
But in the intervening months, Mrs. McMahon has steadily chipped away at Mr. Blumenthal's lead and a Quinnipiac poll in early August showed her trailing Mr. Blumenthal by just 50 percent to 40 percent.
The Cook Report still pegs the seat as "leaning Democratic," but last week said it may change its rating to a tossup as the campaign intensifies.
Most observers credit Mrs. McMahon's climb in the polls to her deep pockets and aggressive advertising. Her campaign has already spent more than $21 million - most of it her own money - according to Federal Election Commission filings through July 21. The professional wrestling mogul has vowed to spend as much as $50 million of her own fortune on the race.
Mrs. McMahon's war chest helped her beat former Rep. Rob Simmons in a bitter Republican Senate primary earlier this month. Mr. Simmons, the party establishment favorite, suggested in a concession speech that he would support Mrs. McMahon in the general election but later told the Connecticut Post he won't ask his voters to back her; a second former rival, economist Peter Schiff, is still mulling an endorsement, according to the paper.
Unifying Republicans is vital for Mrs. McMahon in a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber the GOP 792,934 to 433,057. Even more important, though, is making inroads with Connecticut's coveted nearly 1 million unaffiliated voters, whom both parties are fervently courting.
Described by Mr. McLean as "the most beloved political figure in the state" before he started his Senate campaign, Mr. Blumenthal has made a series of gaffes that Mrs. McMahon has seized upon.
First the New York Times suggested Mr. Blumenthal had overstated his military service during the Vietnam War, when he was a member of a Marine Reserve unit stationed in the U.S. Mr. Blumenthal later apologized for misleading voters. Mrs. McMahon sent out mailers featuring war veterans questioning his integrity.
More recently, she has blasted him for his declaration in January that he has never taken contributions from political action committees, when FEC records showed he collected $482,903 from PACs and other non-party committees during his Senate bid. Mr. Blumenthal's campaign said he was referring to the fact he didn't take PAC contributions during his campaigns as attorney general.
Moving forward, Quinnipiac's Mr. McLean said the debates between the two candidates - the first of three debates is scheduled for Oct. 4 - will be crucial, especially given that Mr. Blumenthal "has never had a tough political race."
"He's presented arguments to the Supreme Court but he's never had to debate an opponent in a political forum," the professor said, adding that the Democrat "really didn't perform well" in an early primary debate. "I think that voters are going to look to see whether he's really got the stuff to be a U.S. senator."
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