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Linda McMahon, from co-founder of the WWE to U.S. Senate candidate

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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

HARWINTON, CONN. -- Melissa Russell, a Republican voter in a silk American-flag scarf, interrupted her chat with U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon at the Fairview Farms Golf Club here earlier this month to bring up an old acqu aintance.

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"On a side note," said Russell, 41, "when I was in high school, I met Sergeant Slaughter. He came out of a camouflage limo!"

McMahon dipped her head back and laughed. Sgt. Slaughter, the '80s-era professional wrestling character, was known for dressing in fatigues and applying the "cobra clutch" hold on his Iranian archenemy, the Iron Sheik. He also wrestled for McMahon, whose entire business experience -- her sole qualification for public office -- has been built on the broad backs of muscle-men and -women in spandex.

A co-founder with her husband of the wildly successful World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), McMahon is willing to spend up to $50 million to fill the Senate seat opened by Chris Dodd's retirement. First she has to get by former congressman Rob Simmons in the Republican primary, then the heavily favored Democratic state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal.

"I am an outsider," McMahon, 61, said in an interview. "What I hear over and over and over again is, 'We want somebody with real-life business experience.' "

"Real" is not the first word that leaps to mind when one thinks of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and Koko B. Ware leaping off the top rope, or other grown men pretending to clothesline, body-slam and "suplex" the living daylights out of each other. And yet the roughly billion-dollar enterprise McMahon and her husband, Vince, built from scratch is very real, as is the WWE's enduring popularity. "It's the longest running weekly episodic program on television, longer than 'Lassie' or 'Gunsmoke,' " she said.

McMahon, a remarkably polished and poised first-time candidate, is ready to embrace the serious success of the company and even the aura of scrappiness it lends her. Then with poise and legalese, she distances herself from wrestling scenes that are sexually explicit and purposefully inflammatory, moments her opponents hope to highlight. That trick is made even tougher by McMahon's star turns inside the ring. While her appearances were nowhere near as regular as those of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, her groin-kicking alter-ego nevertheless did combat with her own husband, son and daughter. Watching her recite well-coached corporate talking points to reconcile the two can be a spectacle in its own right.

On the rampant and deadly use of steroids in pro wrestling: "The thing of it is, there is no competitive advantage for using steroids -- it's not going to make you jump higher, run faster, hit the ball farther or anything like that," she said, adding that "drug policies have evolved, health and wellness policies have evolved."

On the sexually explicit content the company broadcast over the past decade, including the time in 2006 that brawny Edge and vampish Lita disrobed one another, hopped into a bed, simulated sex and flashed a bare breast in the center of the ring ("WWE.com's No. 7 Greatest Moment in Raw History," according to the company's Web site): "I'm glad to see that the programming has now evolved from TV-14 to PG," McMahon said. "Because that's where it should be. It's good for our audience. It's good for our sponsors."

And the way WWE wrestlers, including her husband, mercilessly taunted and beat up a mentally challenged character named Eugene in 2007: "He had a childlike quality about him, and he was a fictional character in a fictional world that was showed no special privilege by WWE and actually was part of a full running story line in which he was an underdog and wound up victorious."

And the footage of McMahon herself in the ring, being called a bitch and slapped to the ground by her daughter, kicking one man between the legs and then having her head inserted between the legs of another man as he pile-drove her down to the mat: "My skills as a CEO are absolutely and completely apart from my being a bad actress every now and then, written into a story line for emphasis."

McMahon is also quick to point out that she resigned from the company in September. Since then, the WWE has developed a primer for reporters, which answers commonly asked questions. "How many wrestlers have died while under contract with the WWE?" Only five! The lack of health coverage? "Such as actors and singers, WWE performers are independent contractors." And the risque story lines? "Much like many other shows at the time [e.g., 'NYPD Blue,' 'Jerry Springer,' 'Big Brother'], WWE engaged in what was known as 'sensationalized TV' in a TV-14 environment."


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