Former wresting executive Linda McMahon and former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays shared a stage with three other contenders, but they focused primarily on each other in their first televised debate. They sparred over whose GOP credentials are stronger, who can win in November and who could best help strengthen the U.S. economy.
Shays, of Bridgeport, said he knows how to win an election. He criticized McMahon for spending $50 million of her own money on the 2010 Senate campaign, in which she won the GOP nomination before losing to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.
"We know Mrs. McMahon isn't a fiscal conservative because she wouldn't have spent $50 million so recklessly. She's not a social conservative because she wouldn't run the business she's in," Shays said.
McMahon, of Greenwich, attacked Shays for votes he cast with Democrats during his years in the U.S. House, including measure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. The former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, now called WWE, also defended her spending in the last race.
"Congressman Shays, you said I spent $50 million of my own money. That's true, I earned it," McMahon said before criticizing Shays for voting for the so-called Bridge to Nowhere for more than $200 million in Alaska. "I don't think that's conservative principles."
At one point, Shays said McMahon sounded more like a Democrat than a Republican in discussing a tax proposal to benefit the middle class.
The candidates appeared on WFSB-TV's "Face the State." Shays and McMahon were joined by three other contenders: Hartford attorney Brian K. Hill, Fairfield attorney Peter Lumaj, and Southbury attorney Kie Westby.
The Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, has not been held by a Republican in more than three decades. Hill said the party needs to consider candidates outside the mold of Fairfield County Republicans and focus more on urban voters if it wants a chance winning.
"Nominating Linda or Chris is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It doesn't matter what order you put them in, the ship is going down," Hill said.
The candidates each touted their ability to boost job growth in a debate that also touched on education, health care legislation and the U.S. deficit.
On immigration, Shays took a harder line than his rivals, saying the U.S. should patrol the border more aggressively, put up more fences and establish English as the official language of the United States. He said immigrants who are already here illegally should be given a "blue card" that allows them to work and pay taxes, but they should never be allowed to become American citizens.
McMahon said the U.S. should do more to stop illegal immigration and should not offer amnesty to those already here, adding that the U.S. should expand its visa program to allow more temporary workers into the country from overseas.
Asked to grade the performance of Connecticut officials in the final minutes of the debate, all of them gave Gov. Dannel P. Malloy poor marks, largely for raising taxes. Shays and McMahon declined to offer a letter grade for Blumenthal's performance so far in the Senate.
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