The First 2012 Senate Debate

Senate candidates Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy shake hands before their debate begins at WFSB in Rocky Hill Oct. 7. (MICHAEL McANDREWS | / October 7, 2012)

ROCKY HILL — In a campaign that's been heavy on personal attacks and light on substance, the candidates for U.S. Senate got serious Sunday morning, tackling important issues such as federal spending, tax policy and Medicare.

But the first debate between Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy also featured plenty of the acrimony that's marked the race so far.

During the feisty, hourlong forum, hosted by WFSB-Channel 3 and broadcast live, McMahon questioned Murphy's honesty and accused him of accepting a "sweetheart" loan while Murphy painted McMahon as an ideologically empty captive of an increasingly right-wing Republican party.

Both candidates are vying for the seat held by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is not seeking re-election. Public opinion polls indicate that the race is deadlocked.

For Murphy, the stakes going into Sunday's debate were especially high. He is a Democrat in a state in which his party holds an overwhelming voter registration advantage, yet he has been unable to capitalize on that built-in edge. In McMahon, the multimillionaire former chairwoman of WWE, he faces an opponent with a seemingly limitless campaign war chest. She has used her millions to run a relentless stream of attack ads against Murphy.

On Sunday, the three-term congressman came out swinging, waging a crisp and spirited defense of his record and going after McMahon on several issues. His performance likely did much to quell the worries of some Democratic insiders, who have been whispering for weeks about what they perceived as Team Murphy's lackluster campaign.

When McMahon declined to name specific programs she would cut to reign in federal spending, Murphy pounced.

"Another 90 seconds and no answers,'' he said, "not a single specific cut that Linda McMahon would support, and another example of fealty to a supply-side trickle down economics that just hasn't worked."

The two candidates tangled repeatedly over McMahon's economic proposal, which is the centerpiece of her campaign.

Murphy said he supports continuing the portion of the so-called Bush tax cuts for middle-income taxpayers but not those benefiting the richest Americans. He dismissed McMahon's plan as nothing more than "a bunch of tax cuts for the very wealthy."

Murphy also alleged that the document was cobbled from various conservative Republican sources, without proper attribution.

"Shame on you!" McMahon responded when confronted with the plagiarism allegation. She said she had consulted economic experts when drafting the plan and buttressed their work with her own ideas, gleaned during her long career running a successful business. She said the document had the proper footnotes.

The debate also revealed another big difference between the two: McMahon would vote to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, and Murphy would not.

There was common ground as well. Both candidates promised to oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Both favor a 1 percent cut in spending, although McMahon pledged not to touch the defense budget, while Murphy said he would support some cuts in defense spending. Both candidates said they would oppose cuts in federal food stamp programs.

And neither candidate completely answered a question about how they personally have been affected by the current economic downturn.

The debate gave each candidate the chance to return to well-worn themes. The forum was moderated by Dennis House, host of the Channel 3 political program "Face the State," and held in the station's Rocky Hill studio before an audience of Connecticut reporters and a smattering of campaign aides.

McMahon sought to portray Murphy as a career politician who doesn't understand the needs of business and has no plan to get the U.S. economy rolling again. She repeatedly accused him of ethical lapses connected to a home loan that he received after he was sued for missing an undisclosed number of mortgage payments in a foreclosure case in 2007.

"You absolutely need to be honest with the people of Connecticut," she said in the opening moments of the debate. "Those are issues that are important to the voters of Connecticut. ... They want to know, 'Can they trust ... the senator they're sending to Washington to represent them?'"

Both Murphy and Webster Bank deny that there were any improprieties with his loan, which was not out of line with similar loans at the time.

McMahon said that Murphy acted as if he was entitled to the Senate seat. "You thought this campaign was going to be a coronation," she said. "And now you're in a serious race with a serious woman and you are desperate."