By Neil Vigdor
Her handlers look like they just got off the red-eye.
So does the press corps, an occupational hazard.
A rested and neatly starched Linda McMahon is swarmed by photographers in front of Victoria’s Secret Wednesday in Fairfield, seemingly impervious to the demands of a grueling odyssey she has undertaken a second time.
This is the endorphin high that comes when you win your party’s Senate primary in a rout, as McMahon did less than 24 hours earlier over fellow Republican Christopher Shays.
Next door, at the Firehouse Deli, the lunchtime rush overlaps with McMahon’s arrival.
Not everyone is here for the chicken salad.
Not Ronnie Hill, who has never met McMahon in person but has spoken on the phone with her when Hill’s recruitment firm did business with Titan Sports, the precursor to World Wrestling Entertainment and now the WWE.
“She is the iron hand and the velvet glove,” gushes Hill, who is in her 50s and lives in Fairfield.
Hill is among the first to seek out McMahon on the front patio of the deli, second only to the hardy Fran Schneidau of WCBS Newsradio 880, who is angling for a sound bite on this overcast early afternoon.
“It was a good night. Congressman Shays was very gracious,” McMahon obliges. “I told him, Chris, ’You were my congressman and always have my respect.’ ”
Hill was not eligible to vote for McMahon, who has touted herself as an outsider and board room-tested jobs creator, in Tuesday’s GOP primary because she’s an Independent.
McMahon’s Horatio Alger story of the self-made matriarch of pro wrestling who was once bankrupt, amplified by a measured dose of television commercials, nevertheless resonates with Hill.
“People love the Cinderella story,” says Hill, her impression of McMahon reaffirmed by face time with the candidate.
Consider this: McMahon captured just a shade under 50 percent of the vote when she won a three-way primary two years ago for the Senate. This time, the margin of victory was 73 percent to 27 percent.
But McMahon knows all too well she will be ultimately judged by how she fares in the general election against Democrat Christopher Murphy, the three-term congressman from the 5th District.
Flanked by her driver, a press aide and a social media guru who is Tweeting away on her behalf, McMahon cracks a smile.
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” she tells Elworthy.
John McKinney is a McMahon convert.
And, boy, is it ever on display on the first day of the general election campaign, with the state Senate minority leader squiring McMahon on a tour of businesses in his hometown.
Though he supported Shays in the primary and even cut a video for the veteran public servant who succeeded his late father in Congress, McKinney marvels at McMahon’s skills as a retail politician.
Inside the Firehouse Deli, McMahon shakes hands with the girls behind the counter. Then, the top self-funding Senate candidate of all time peeks into the kitchen for an audience with the grill men, who are searing chicken breasts on a griddle.
In the dining room in the back, the grandmother of six runs her hands through the gelled hair of Ethan Tavolacci, 5, who is visiting from Long Island with a group of children for whom McMahon signs an autograph.
McMahon then circulates from table to table in a side patio, an entourage of surrogates and media wandering past the lantana planters and table umbrellas.
McKinney knows what some people might be thinking, but he says it’s not like that at all.
“Look, I’ve known Chris for almost 30 years. He’s been part of my family,” McKinney says. “I’ve always been with Chris, never been against Linda.”
McMahon departs the deli for the confines of her GMC Yukon Denali SUV, photogs scurrying after her in a municipal parking lot.
Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, who endorsed McMahon back in January, ducks out of the way of the cameras.
an ANSWER TO STRESS
Just over an hour later in Danbury, McMahon is escorted under an umbrella by a campaign aide into the reception area of Sealed Air Corp., where a gaggle of television and print reporters is chomping at the bit to do a presser before she tours the foam packaging plant with the city’s Republican mayor, Mark Boughton.
McMahon is peppered with questions about a robo-call her campaign sent out to 300,000 seniors statewide declaring that Murphy aided in a $700 billion cut to Medicare when he voted for the Affordable Care Act, a claim Murphy characterizes as a lie.
Although McMahon’s schedule says the tour of plant is open to the media, company execs nix the walk-through, saying their corporation communications people overruled it. Steven Schumacher high-tails it to the plant upon learning that McMahon is in the Hat City.
The 27-year-old is a corporate sales manager at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Danbury and registered Republican from Wallingford. He shows up with literature about the hotel and a stress ball on the chance he can see McMahon. He’s in luck.
“I was one of your last votes, not that you needed it,” says Schumacher, who made it to the polls at 7:58 p.m.
Schumacher presents McMahon with the stress ball and poses for a photo with her taken with his smart phone.
“Whoever does your Twitter is a genius,” he says.
McMahon gives the stress ball to Joe Gallagher, her omnipresent and watchful driver. But don’t call him a body guard. Boughton playfully asks Gallagher for permission to drive McMahon to their next stop, TK’s American Cafe, a White Street sports bar with 52 flavors of buffalo wings.
A SIDE OF BEEFCAKE
Trailed by a young volunteer from the Murphy campaign who records her every move and every word with an iPhone, McMahon gets a rousing reception from several tables of her local supporters in the rear of the watering hole.
Duncan is director of the Military Museum of Southern New England, located in Danbury. He’s a Republican and says he wants McMahon to run on making English the country’s official language.
“Get rid of the illegal aliens,” he says. “Giving jobs to them is killing me.”
CNBC is airing on a flat screen television as a local man approaches McMahon and asks for a job with her campaign.
“Feel free to send your resume,” says McMahon, who instructs Duffy to give the man her card.
The man writes his name and contact information on a paper plate to give to McMahon’s aide.
McMahon tells her hometown newspaper in an interview that she received congratulatory phone messages from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
When the former wrestling executive is asked whether she is prepared to answer questions from her opponent about her tenure at the WWE, to whom her campaign has often directed media inquiries, McMahon says she loves the company that she helped grow.
“Absolutely, it’s a subject I know very well,” she said. “But I think really often questions come about relative to WWE from the media standpoint. But I have to tell you, when I’m out talking to the folks of Connecticut they’re talking about their jobs, they’re talking about their kids graduating from college looking for work, they’re talking about how difficult it is for them to continue to maintain their businesses, and that’s their focus.”
An elderly female supporter pulls McMahon aside next to a stack of the candidate’s lawn signs, swooning over McMahon’s youthful-looking Danbury field office director, Brendon Shaw.
“He is cute,” McMahon is overheard saying.
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