The evening started ominously for Linda McMahon, as she was greeted by Murphy supporters pretending to be "Millionaires for McMahon" chanting slogans like "Eat The Poor", "Harvard Not UConn" and "Save Our Yachts". One of them even had a placard with "Watch Wealth Escalate" - WWE get it? Which probably caused Vince McMahon to blow a gasket even before the speaking began. So she walked into the lions den of public opinion tonight, which she was spared in the first debate that was done in studio. Was she ready for it?
In the early going she coped fine, as the questions disappointingly covered most of the same topics that came up in the first debate, like the economy, unemployment, taxes, Social Security and Medicare, which allowed both candidates to largely stick to their tried and tested talking points they raised on Sunday. McMahon may even have earned some brownie points with independent voters by invoking Barack Obama in her defence that taxes should not be raised during a recession and even said she'd be willing to pay higher taxes if the money went to reducing America's debt and the federal deficit. Halfway through it even seemed like Linda could achieve a first in her political career: get through an hour long debate without a major error.
However, things started to go downhill, when she tossed Murphy an easy softball by being dumb enough to bring up his alleged improper bank loan and poor attendance at Congressional finance hearings when she was asked whether she planned to move away from the negative campaigning that has been the hallmark of her run so far. Murphy had already quipped that Linda was "addicted to personal attacks" and proving him correct on that issue allowed him to unleash another zinger that brought forth plenty of laughter and applause, despite the audience being told at the start of proceedings that no partisan jeering would be allowed:
"I think you asked Linda McMahon when she was going to stop the character assaults? She just launched a bunch more of them. Come on!"
Moreover, McMahon wasn't really able to come up with a good answer when probed about why she thought Murphy had received a preferential loan from a local bank, though maybe you would be paranoid about such things after working in the corrupt industry of pro wrestling for close to three decades.
The fireworks didn't stop there, in fact, the biggest explosions were yet to come. To deflect the issue of his missed financial meetings, Murphy brought up the anecdote that Linda had hardly ever voted in state elections before she suddenly got interested in politics at the ripe old age of 60. Linda said that was "absolutely, categorically false". The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, as McMahon's voting record did become an issue in the 2010 Republican primaries. Later in the debate, McMahon gave an equally misleading categorisation of Murphy's work-rate in Congress:
"I just think public integrity is an issue and only in Washington could you miss 75 percent of your job, get paid $170,000 a year, and you want to get a promotion"
But Linda's blackest moment came when she had to respond to Murphy's factual attack that it took 36 years and an election campaign to payback her bankruptcy debts, despite becoming a multi-millionaire well over two decades earlier. Her initial reply: "Well, I did eventually pay." got more howls of laughter and even some boos. It didn't unnerve her too much, as she quickly managed to regain her footing by pointing out that she didn't need any special help to repay her creditors back:
"But I did it with my money. You got a special loan from the bank, you got a special loan."
That said, when many already to begin with see her as a joke of a candidate, seeing her laughed at onstage twice in one night only enhances that image.
Towards the end of the debate, the topic of foreign policy came up for the first time, which Linda gave a shaky answer on that tried to get the subject matter back into her comfort zone of the economy, by saying that without a strong economy we can't have a strong defence or strong foreign policy. But as there was only a few minutes on this issue, her foreign affairs ignorance didn't get too badly exposed.
Strangely, the subject of WWE was only brought up by Murphy once, at the very end of the debate when Linda wouldn't have a chance to respond. When he was arguing that Linda McMahon wasn't the type of CEO that deserves to be U.S. Senator, he mentioned that she had denied health insurance for her wrestlers. The reason for this might be explained by the following tweet by Daniela Altimari of the Hartford Courant:
Interesting: the McMahon campaign sent out a lengthy fact check on #wwe, which scarcely came up at all during tonight's #ctsen debate.
Obviously, Murphy's team wanted to land that punch in, but didn't want Linda quibbling about the details of it. Overall, I thought Linda performed worse here than she did on Sunday, but maybe the crowd affected my judgement a bit. Still, either way, I don't think she improved her odds of winning tonight much at all. I get the sense that potential victory is slipping through her fingers again.