Supporters waiting to shake Republican U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon's hand at a campaign event in Farmington last month didn't pay much attention to the tall, boyish-looking operative hovering at the edge of the crowd.
That man, Corry Bliss, 31, has been in Connecticut for a little over a year and isn't well known outside the small world of political insiders. But as the guiding hand behind McMahon's much-talked-about campaign makeover, and the driver of her vaunted attack machine, he is playing a big role in determining who the state's next senator will be.
Bliss practices an aggressive, hard-hitting brand of politics that critics say is ripped from the playbook of Karl Rove. As McMahon's $15,000-a-month campaign manager, he is the head warrior, quick with a pithy quote or a stinging rebuke — a strategy that has allowed the candidate herself to remain comfortably above the fray.
A week ago, Bliss accused Webster Bank of handing McMahon's Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, a "sweetheart loan deal' in 2008, after Murphy was sued for foreclosure. The bank's chairman, Jim Smith, Bliss alleged, "was considered to be one of Murphy's strongest campaign supporters.''
Bob Guenther, Webster's senior vice president of public affairs, flatly denied that special favors were granted to Murphy. "We have no idea what [the McMahon campaign is] referring to,'' he said. "They're just throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall and wondering what sticks.''
According to the OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political donations, Smith has not contributed to Murphy's campaigns; in fact, he gave to Nancy Johnson, Murphy's opponent, in 2006. Smith did give to Webster Bank's political action committee, which in turn, contributed to Murphy.
Bliss filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics alleging that Murphy violated House rules when he accepted a home equity line of credit from Webster Bank at what Bliss says were below market rates. The complaint won't go anywhere until after the election — the office is prohibited from referring cases to the House Ethics Committee within 60 days of an election. But the complaint generated a batch of fresh headlines and kept Murphy on the defensive.
"It is clear that despite attempts by the Hartford Courant and Webster Bank to downplay and dismiss reality, there are serious questions about how Congressman Chris Murphy was able to obtain a new home equity line of credit at a sweetheart rate that most Americans would never have been able to get from their local bank in July 2008," Bliss said in a press release last week. "Since no one is asking Congressman Murphy or Webster Bank the tough questions that demand answers, this campaign is obliged to do so on behalf of the people of Connecticut."
The Murphy campaign has launched of attacks of its own, charging that McMahon's economic plan would give her a seven-figure tax cut and that the company she once ran, WWE, keeps its money in off-shore bank accounts — charges the McMahon campaign says are untrue.
But Bliss has set the pace of the increasingly bitter race. He is part of a team of McMahon strategists, including those with ties to some of the most infamous campaign strikes of the past 25 years. The campaign's Virginia-based general consultant Chris LaCivita was media adviser to the Swift Boat Veterans, which raised questions about John Kerry's war record during the 2004 presidential race. McMahon has also retained McCarthy Hennings Media, whose founding partner, Larry McCarthy, created the Willie Horton ad that helped doom the presidential aspirations of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
McMahon has run "a near flawless campaign,'' said state Republican party Chairman Jerry Labriola. Bliss "plays to win … and he's willing to play hardball."
Or tennis. "He's crafty and consistent on the tennis court,'' said Labriola, who has played against him. "He doesn't make many mistakes. … There are no unforced errors with Corry Bliss."
Bliss declined to be interviewed. Campaign spokesman Todd Abrajano questioned The Courant's motives for pursuing a story on Bliss, which he likened to an attack on the campaign.
"Attacking staff is gutter politics and a sure sign that Congressman Murphy is a desperate, rudderless candidate who has blatant disrespect and contempt for voters,'' Abrajano said in an email. "Connecticut voters face serious issues and Congressman Murphy faces serious ethical questions about how he has conducted himself while representing the 5th District. The McMahon campaign is focused on putting the over 160,000 unemployed people in Connecticut — who wake up every day wondering where their next paycheck, meal, or rent check will come from — back to work.
"The McMahon campaign will not participate in such tawdry, low brow Washington, D.C., parlor games, and it is embarrassing that the Hartford Courant can't say the same,'' Abrajano said.
Bliss wasn't on McMahon's campaign staff in 2010, when she first ran for U.S. Senate and lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal by 12 points. But the current, more aggressive strategy appears to be having an impact: In a state where registered Republicans make up just 20 percent of the electorate, McMahon is now essentially even with Murphy in public opinion polls.
Bliss honed his hardball style in competitive campaigns in Virginia and Vermont.
The campaign was notable for its nastiness: The Virginian-Pilot wrote in an editorial, "Drake has run an especially distasteful campaign, based almost entirely on throwing spurious personal attacks at her opponent.'' Drake lost by about 5 points.
Two years later, in 2010, Bliss was in Vermont, running the gubernatorial campaign of that state's popular Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.
At one point during that acrimonious campaign, Bliss and Dubie accused Democratic rival Peter Shumlin and a local businessman of "a shocking level of corruption." The businessman sued them for libel. Bliss a wrote letter of apology, and the suit was dropped.
Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a longtime observer of Green Mountain politics, blames Bliss for the tone of the race, which Shumlin won by about 3,000 votes.
"Mr. Bliss brought a blatant ugliness to the campaign,'' Nelson said. "It was sad for those of us that knew Brian and like Brian. We were delighted when Mr. Bliss left."
Vermont, Nelson said, has a "high level of civility" in its public discourse. "We like our politics relatively clean,'' he said.
Jack Lindley, head of the Republican Party in Vermont, acknowledged that Vermonters had a "certain amount of nervousness" about Bliss' aggressive style. "We're kind of laid back,'' he said.
But Lindley praised Bliss' tactics, saying he was adept at defining the opposition.
"You take no prisoners when you're in this to win,'' Lindley said. "This isn't patty cake or 'Kumbaya.' … It's like shock and awe. You've got to be tough."