In Blue-Leaning Connecticut, Tight Senate Race Has Democrat On Offense

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It might seem counterintuitive, but the man running against Republican Linda McMahon in her second attempt at becoming Connecticut's first female senator wants this race to be all about women.

Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy released an ad this week, hammering McMahon's stance on women's health and reminding voters of McMahon's former role as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment.

"As CEO, Linda McMahon demeaned women to make millions in her business," a woman claims in the ad. Another says: "As senator, McMahon would support a Republican proposal that would allow my employer to deny me coverage for contraception, and she will deny coverage for mammograms, siding with the most extreme Republicans to deny women health care."

McMahon hit back, calling Murphy's ad "totally false" and "pretty desperate."

In an ad of her own, she said: "Chris, take a look: I am a woman, a pro-choice woman. My company offered excellent health benefits that included mammograms and access to birth control. It's absurd to claim I'd vote differently."

Still, in an interview, McMahon acknowledges she would have voted for a GOP amendment that failed this year in the Senate. It would have blocked the Obama administration's order that health plans in institutions run by religious organizations provide free contraceptives to women.

"I really felt that institutions that were, you know, religious oriented, should be able, you know, not to have to provide contraception," McMahon said.

Two years ago, McMahon lost by 12 percentage points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. This year, McMahon and Murphy are competing for the Senate seat being vacated by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Yale University political scientist Eleanor Powell says McMahon, using her vast personal fortune and fame, really never stopped running, although this time she's been aggressively courting women.

"She's managed to portray that she's done a lot for Connecticut women and, whereas, Murphy's been, you know, in the House of Representatives taking votes ... with the Democrats, which are sort of more traditionally allied with many women's issues," Powell said. "It's impressive how she's managed to convey this pro-women's agenda."

Meanwhile, another McMahon TV ad released earlier this month reminds voters that before going to Congress, Murphy missed rent and mortgage payments, and got what the ad portrays as a questionable home equity loan.

"How?" the ad asks. "The bank that gave Murphy the loan was also giving him campaign contributions because Murphy sat on the banking committee. Murphy voted for the bank bailout, and Murphy's favorite bank got a $400 million bailout. Connect the dots."

Murphy, who was a member of the House Committee on Financial Services, rejected those claims at a news conference earlier this week.

"I've made mistakes with my personal finances, but I've paid back what I owed," Murphy said. "Independent analysts who've examined Linda's lies have declared them to be false and out of line."

Later, in an interview, Murphy says McMahon simply wants to skirt the real issues by raising fake ones.

"Linda McMahon's campaign strategy is to keep this campaign on, on lies about ... me and my family's finances," Murphy said.

Congressional expert Arthur Paulson of Southern Connecticut State University says that as a Democrat, Murphy should be doing better.

"If you forced me to choose, I would say right now I think Murphy's going to win, but that's what I would've said all along, and I'm surprised we're even in a contest here," Paulson said.

In a state that hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate in more than three decades, two recent polls have Murphy ahead of McMahon by just a few points.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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