Linda McMahon and Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) met in their first debate on Sunday, a crucial test in a heavily contested Senate race that has taken on national implications in recent weeks.
McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has spent months flooding Connecticut's airwaves in millions of dollars' worth of negative advertisements against her opponent. Between those ads and Murphy's continuing woes over a 2007 mortgage default, the race has evolved into a dead heat: HuffPost's Pollster average currently gives McMahon a 46.4 to 46.1 percent advantage over Murphy.
The eyes of the nation are on the race. Its outcome could decide the control of the Senate next term -- and thus the course of the first two years of President Obama's second term, if he is reelected.
It was perhaps ironic, then, that one of Murphy's most pointed lines included a little dig at the president's performance in his first debate against Mitt Romney on Wednesday.
After McMahon repeated the misleading claim that the Affordable Care Act cut funding to Medicare, Murphy had a ready response.
"President Obama let Mitt Romney get away with this $700 billion lie, and I'm not going to let Linda McMahon get away with it," Murphy said. "That money was taken out of the budgets of health insurers who were being massively subsidized for providing medicare advantage, it was being taken out of the pockets of drug industries, companies who were making billions off of care for our seniors."
The sparring over Medicare repeated a pattern that had emerged far earlier in the debate: rarely did the candidates' responses to questions stray from predetermined national talking points and scripted zingers.
There were no knockout moments on Sunday. Murphy and McMahon replayed battles that have been fought ad nauseum over the course of the race. Murphy hit McMahon for her bankruptcy, while McMahon criticized Murphy over his mortgage troubles. The two also argued over the Murphy campaign's claim that much of McMahon's jobs plan was cribbed from outside sources.
"Entire paragraphs and entire sentences" were "lifted from the House Republican website, the Cato Institute," Murphy charged. "It's a plan that was essentially written by people in Washington who have ideology as their primary concern."
"Shame on you. You have just accused me of plagiarizing my plan, it is beneath you," McMahon responded, claiming that she had cited sources for the plan extensively. "You thought this was going to be a coronation, but now you're in a serious race with a serious woman."
It's unlikely that Murphy had discounted the potential threat from a woman who spent $50 million on her last Senate bid, a losing effort against now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal in 2010. But he may not have expected that McMahon would deliver a generally smooth performance. On the rare occasions when she has responded to questions from reporters, McMahon has stumbled, but on Sunday, she seemed to be thoroughly prepared.
An exception occurred when McMahon was asked about her position on same-sex marriage. Which was better -- the status of same-sex marriage in Connecticut, where it is legal, or in her home state of North Carolina, where it is not?
"I absolutely support America's law for, you know, same-sex marriage," McMahon said. "And, uh, I wouldn't pretend to try to impose my will or rights on others, I think everyone should have the freedom to make that choice."
McMahon's vague answer gave Murphy an opening.
"America doesn't have a law protecting same-sex marriage, in fact it has the exact opposite," he shot back. "She's not going to stand up to her party in Washington when it comes to these issues that are right now being dominated by the social right."
Sunday's debate was hosted by WFSB. Murphy and McMahon will meet three more times before the Nov. 6 election.