McMahon, Murphy trade blows in Connecticut Senate debate

Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., left, and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Linda McMahon, right, debate in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. The two are vying for the Senate seat now held by Joe Lieberman, an independent who's retiring.

Connecticut Senate candidates Rep. Chris Murphy and former WWE executive Linda McMahon squared off for their fourth and final debate on Thursday, and the attacks began immediately and lingered for the full hour.

The two candidates sparred on issues ranging from Social Security and the economy to negative ads and China. Throughout, Democrat Murphy cast himself as a defender of the middle class and McMahon as a hard-hearted plutocrat. Republican McMahon, who is running in a largely blue state, defined herself as an "independent thinker" and a job creator and slammed Murphy as a failed career politician.

In the first exchange, when McMahon was asked why her plans for Social Security lacked detail, she stressed that she "will not support any budget that would reduce the benefits that our seniors are getting today." She then turned the issue into an attack on her opponent, saying Murphy is the "only one person on this stage" who's already voted to reduce benefits to seniors through Medicare.

McMahon was referring to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that cut $716 billion from Medicare payments to providers, not beneficiaries.

Soon after, McMahon seemed to err when she said, "I have not talked about specifics on the campaign trail because they get demagogued."

Murphy seized the opportunity: "She says that she's going to get demagogued. Well that maybe is a different way of saying that she's going to lose votes," he said. "Well, you might lose votes if you take a position - but that's our responsibility as candidates, to tell folks what we'd do."

The Democrat strived to nationalize the race at every turn, tying McMahon to national Republicans and reminding the audience that McMahon could be the 51st vote for a GOP majority. It's an outcome that Murphy warned could threaten the environment and mean the elimination of the Department of Education and extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.

McMahon wasn't having it. "Congressman Murphy, you know that you've not been honest," she said, adding that she wouldn't hesitate to buck the party line when she disagreed.

In an extended exchange about abortion rights, McMahon said she is "pro choice, and I've not wavered from that position...I will not support my party in repealing any of these laws."

Murphy fired back, "You can't say you're pro-choice but then be open to voting for Supreme Court justices that would overturn [Roe v Wade]."

The conversation mirrored the presidential race to a striking degree. The Republican repeatedly stressed her experience creating jobs, warning that voters can't "send the same people to Washington who made this mess now and expect them to fix it." The Democrat cautioned, "We tried Linda McMahon's plan - and it failed. We tried it under the Bush Administration...I just don't think that we should go back to the same set of failed economic policies."

Murphy said that when McMahon's company received 10 million dollars in state money to "create jobs in the middle of the recession, she took that money, she pocketed it, and at the same time laid laying off 10 percent of her workforce while making 46 million dollars."

McMahon cited her own history of economic struggle as evidence of her empathy: "I've walked in those shoes. I know what it's like to lose everything, and to have to come back from bankruptcy. I know what it's like to have a child and not have any health care coverage." The Republican touted her 6-point plan for job creation as the answer to voters' concerns.

At one point, when Murphy claimed he was due an additional minute of speaking time, he quickly added, "I don't want to mimic Mitt Romney and complain about debate rules." The audience laughed.

When the candidates were asked if they were ever embarrassed by their negative ads, neither flinched. "People need to know," Murphy said, adding, "I'm proud of the ads that we've run."

McMahon explained, "I think when there are issues when he has not been forthcoming, we should draw that attention to the people of Connecticut [sic]."

When they were asked to say something nice about their opponent, Murphy paid McMahon a backhanded compliment, calling her "very driven," while McMahon gushed over Murphy's two young sons.

In the final exchange of the afternoon, the candidates were asked whether they considered China an ally or a rival. McMahon reminded the audience, "There is a lot of business that happens between Connecticut and China," but added, "I do think that the Chinese need to respect our intellectual property laws, which they do not." Both candidates agreed that China's "currency manipulation" is hurting the American economy.

In her closing statement, McMahon again touted her job-creation bona fides and added, "I'm asking you to make history in November - not send another career politician to Washington but serve the first woman from Connecticut to serve in the United States Senate."

Murphy closed with contrast: "Linda McMahon hasn't just sat on the sidelines, she's made things worse - by mistreating her workers, by outsourcing work, by selling sex and violence. Linda McMahon's never been there for us, but I have."

Current polling shows the race is very close, with Murphy enjoying a slim 3-point lead in the RealClearPolitics poll average.