Former Wrestling Exec Fights In Conn. Senate Race

The Connecticut Senate race has been dominated in the final few weeks by an argument about pro-wrestling.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

To Connecticut now, where the debate for that state's open U.S. Senate seat is all about pro-wrestling. The Republican candidate is Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. And the make-believe world of the ring has suddenly become a very real stumbling block for her.

NPR's Robert Smith gives us this primer on wrestling politics.

ROBERT SMITH: The lingo of professional wrestling comes from the old carnival days, the most important term:

Mr. JAMES CALDWELL (Assistant Editor, Pro Wrestling Torch): Kayfabe.

SMITH: Kayfabe.

Mr. CALDWELL: Kayfabe.

SMITH: James Caldwell is the assistant editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch. Kayfabe is never breaking character, keeping up the illusion of the fight.

Mr. CALDWELL: It is a put-on. It is a performance that on television they're kayfabing the audience into suspending their disbeliefs that what they're watching is real.

SMITH: Linda McMahon when she was CEO of World Wrestling could kayfabe with the best of them, whether it was kicking a rival where it hurts the most...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Oh, my gosh.

SMITH: ...or getting slapped to the mat by her own daughter.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Oh. Oh, somebody slapped her mother down. Linda must be heartbroken.

SMITH: All kayfabe, of course, but that hasn't stopped Democrats from gleefully spreading these clips around. And during this week's debate, Democrat Richard Blumenthal showed that he's no slouch either at ratcheting up a heighten sense of drama. He's been attorney general for 20 years, never showed any interest in going after wrestling, until now.

Mr. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Connecticut): My opponent has not only marketed sex and violence to children, but she actually paid to lobby in Washington against penalties for sex and violence marketing to children.

SMITH: Linda McMahon was also playing a character, good corporate citizen.

Ms. LINDA McMAHON (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Connecticut): I think there were times when we pushed the envelop, but I'm very proud of the company that today is involved in programs like Smackdown Your Vote!, getting young people out to registering to vote.

SMITH: In wrestling terms, McMahon was making the turn and trying to be the Babyface.

Mr. CALDWELL: Babyface is your star who comes in to save the day, the quote, unquote, "good guy" of your wrestling TV show.

Ms. McMAHON: A total outsider, a businesswoman who's created about 600 jobs here in this state, and I know how to create jobs.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SMITH: In rallies like this one in Milford, Connecticut, McMahon builds up the storyline - a mom, a self-made millionaire drifting in from parts unknown to take on the establishment. The crowd is more men than women. And 40-year-old men like Anthony Gemelli(ph) have been the core of the McMahon's support.

Mr. ANTHONY GEMELLI: I was a fan when I was younger. Everybody - I think everybody was. It's a soap opera just like Hollywood.

SMITH: Women have not been so understanding. In some polls, Blumenthal leads among women by nearly two to one. Outside the Milford rally, Barbara Throwbridge(ph) says she's not a fan of the wrestling business or of McMahon's multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

Ms. BARBARA THROWBRIDGE: I don't know what her specific ideas and plans are.

SMITH: Even though you see her every other ad on TV?

Ms. THROWBRIDGE: Yeah. It's all degrading, the other - the other people.

SMITH: In wrestling parlance, some women think of McMahon as a heel.

Mr. CALDWELL: The heel is the villain who is trying to bring down the good guy, to bring down Hulk Hogan.

SMITH: Okay, Richard Blumenthal is no Hulk Hogan, but McMahon did use this week's debate to unleash a chair shot during the boom-boom-boom, which is...

Mr. CALDWELL: ...a series of moves that really excites the audience - the boom-boom-boom of the match.

SMITH: Blumenthal had McMahon in a head locked. He was landing potatoes left and right, about steroids in pro-wrestling, about outsourcing wrestling toys to China.

Mr. CALDWELL: The excitement and the crowd is just on the edge of their seats, so they're standing on their feet.

SMITH: And then, McMahon flips him, reminding the audience that Richard Blumenthal had been caught saying he served in Vietnam when, in fact, he was stateside.

Ms. McMAHON: You have a difficult time telling the truth. They know that you had a hard time telling the truth...

Unidentified Woman: Please, ladies and gentlemen.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman: Shh. Please.

SMITH: Even the debate audience is getting into the kayfabe in Connecticut. Democrat Richard Blumenthal has a double-digit lead in the polls. In politics, that's nearly unbeatable. But in wrestling, it's just a setup for the big finish, when the feud comes to a head, better known as...

Mr. CALDWELL: The blow-off match, which would be the November 2nd general elections.

SMITH: That's wrestling writer James Caldwell, and I'm Robert Smith, NPR News.

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