Friday, May 21, 2010

WWE mogul charges into Conn. political smackdown

HARTFORD, Conn. — Linda McMahon has had some infamous moments in the ring — kicking a man in the groin, getting slapped across the face by her daughter, and sitting in a wheelchair, feigning a coma, as her famous husband cavorted before thousands of screaming fans with a scantily clad "Diva."

McMahon last year stepped away from her wild World Wrestling Entertainment empire to climb into the political ring, where she has parlayed some of her experience with attention-getting stunts into a viable Republican candidacy to succeed the retiring Chris Dodd in the U.S. Senate.

As the state GOP prepares to endorse a candidate Friday, McMahon unabashedly acknowledges her campaign used some of the $50 million she has pledged for the race to provide "some things" for a news report that front runner Richard Blumenthal, the state's popular Democratic attorney general, had distorted his record of military service during the Vietnam War.

She also continues to deflect criticism about the WWE, which over the years has come under fire for the health of its performers and some of its stunts, including a developmentally disabled character being beaten and a performer simulating sex with a woman's corpse in a casket.

"It's push-back that WWE has heard over time. To produce seven hours of fresh programming every single week, with no reruns for 52 weeks a year, you do some story lines, you know, better than others," McMahon, a political novice, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "It becomes a matter of taste."

McMahon, who stepped down as chief executive officer of WWE last fall to run for the Senate, is now pitching herself as a successful entrepreneur with than 30 years of business experience, someone who knows how to manage a budget, create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Her early salvo has left a blemish in Blumenthal's tidy record in addition to stirring up renewed attention to her own record with the Greenwich-based WWE, where she helped grow a 13-person operation into a global business with more than 500 employees.

Democrats and McMahon's main GOP rival, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, are attempting to turn the tables and use the controversy that McMahon helped to create, as well as her campaign's words, as political ammunition.

Simmons points to McMahon's statements about the health and wellness of her WWE performers. His campaign recently produced an Internet video that flashes pictures of seven wrestlers who appeared in a 1991 Wrestlemania Event and later died, most of them in their 40s. It points out how the WWE stopped its drug testing in 1996 and didn't resume it until 2006.

"Evaluating Linda McMahon, the candidate begins with evaluating Linda McMahon's WWE business experience — the good, the bad, the ugly," read one recent Simmons mailer.
Another reads: "Linda McMahon made hundreds of millions of dollars she's using to fund her Senate campaign by selling graphic sex and violence to children of all ages."

It's questionable whether that rhetoric will influence Republican delegates on Friday, though.

"Rob Simmons, since September, has been attacking Linda, has run a nonstop negative campaign against Linda, he has been talking exclusively about wrestling, WWE," said Ed Patru, a McMahon campaign spokesman. "The result has been a nose dive in the polls for him."

While Simmons was the front runner for the Republican nomination earlier this year, actually leading Dodd back in January when the senator was still in the race, a March 17 Quinnipiac University Poll showed McMahon, who has already run numerous television ads, had taken the apparent lead among Republican primary voters. While Simmons is expected to win the endorsement Friday, some Republicans acknowledge McMahon has a shot.

Even if McMahon doesn't win the nod Friday, she's still expected to win enough delegates needed to challenge Simmons to a primary on Aug. 10. Simmons has said he won't seek a primary if he does not secure the endorsement.

A 2009 congressional committee investigation into steroid use in professional wrestling, one that included interviews with McMahon and her husband, Vince, criticized the WWE for a "lack of independence and transparency."

McMahon pointed out the WWE has improved its wellness program, telling the AP that there are now full cardiac evaluations and physicals for performers, and that the WWE was the first wrestling organization to put mats outside the ring to protect falling wrestlers.

"It's always interesting that you are seemingly punished or looked at askant for what maybe you weren't doing 20 years ago, instead of being credited for how you've evolved it, learned in the process, taken better care of people, and all of the evolutions of content and programming and been in business that long and been on television," McMahon said.

"It's a testament really to the creativity and ingenuity that's the product, I think."

Now McMahon is using that ingenuity in her political race.

A report this week by The New York Times, the newspaper to which McMahon's campaign acknowledges it supplied information, included quotations and a video of Blumenthal saying in 2008 that he had served "in Vietnam" even though his service in the Marine Reserve did not take him overseas.

Blumenthal, who appeared to have a lock on the Senate seat before this with double-digit leads in recent polls, has since said that he "misspoke" on several occasions and that his statements were "totally unintentional" errors.

Referring to McMahon campaign claims that Blumenthal's mistakes about his military record show "deeply disturbing disconnects between the image he sought to portray and reality," Simmons said the same can be said about McMahon.

"Just as Blumenthal's unscrutinized record has now caused consternation for Democrats," Simmons said, "so will McMahon's for Republicans."