NORWICH — Linda McMahon may be the frontrunner in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, but it was former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays who was fending off attacks from one of the three lesser-known candidates in the race.

Peter Lumaj of Fairfield defended McMahon after Shays criticized her background in the wrestling industry. It seemed at one point that he was willing to endorse her, but as the “true conservative” in the race, Lumaj promised to petition his way onto the primary ballot and later called McMahon unelectable.

Nearly 30 minutes into the debate hosted by the Norwich Bulletin, Shays said McMahon was neither a social conservative — because of the graphic nature of the televised wrestling sketches — nor a fiscal conservative, because “you wouldn’t spend $50 million so recklessly.”

Shays was referring to the $50 million McMahon spent on her failed 2010 bid for U.S. Senate.

“Once they go to Washington they become Chris Shays,” Lumaj said, arguing that it is impossible to negotiate public policy with Democrats if it means negotiating on their turf. He even seemed to latch onto the public relations strategy the McMahon campaign has been using by suggesting there is no difference between Shays and Democratic frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy.

“Let’s do what we did with 65 men and women two years ago,” Lumaj said, referring to the 2010 election when the Republican party took back the majority in House.

Shays said that as a member of Congress for 21 years, he voted with the Republican party 75 percent of the time, while Murphy votes with his party 90 percent of the time. Shays touted his ability to work across the aisle with Democrats.

Shays then accused McMahon of being responsible for President Barack Obama’s health care plan, because she donated money to Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Party, which Shays said cost former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons his seat by 83 votes.

“We wouldn’t have to repeal ‘Obamacare’ if she hadn’t helped elect the people who wrote it,” Shays said.

McMahon said the $50 million she spent on her campaign in 2010 was her money to spend and it paled in comparison to the $200 million Shays approved by voting for the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

“I don’t think your record speaks to a conservative Republican,” McMahon told Shays. She accused Shays of not having an economic plan.

Shays bristled at the notion that compromise with the opposite party was a bad quality for a Senator. Shays alleged maybe since Lumaj, who escaped communism to become a United States citizen, doesn’t understand the Constitution that was created through compromise.

“Please don’t call immigration on me,” Lumaj joked. “I understand the Constitution and I’m a firm believer in the Constitution.”

Lumaj said that if you want to lead, you have to take a tough position and not waiver.

“Negotiating with the left on their turf to me is defeat and I wouldn’t accept that,” Lumaj said.

Shays reminded the audience of about 100 that polls show him within one percentage point of the leading Democratic candidate in the race.

Kie Westby, an attorney from Southbury, said going to Washington is about service.

Westby served 24 years in the Marine Corps Reserve, including a stint during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and has been an attorney for 32 years and a Rotary Club member for 28.

Brian K. Hill, a Hartford attorney, argued that he is the most electable candidate because he won’t ignore the cities.

Hill said it doesn’t matter how smart any of the candidates are or how good their plan is if they can’t get elected.

“Republicans do things that compromise their ability to win,” Hill said. “Look at the convention in 2010. The fix was on from the time the light switched on.”

Candidates alleged McMahon bought the convention in 2010 by hiring and paying the delegates, an allegation McMahon denied.

“Any thought that delegates were paid or could be paid and bought off insulting,” McMahon said.

All five candidates said they supported the Republican Party’s resolution that would have required delegates to disclose whether they were being paid by the campaigns. But Republican state central members did not vote in favor of the resolution at a recent meeting.

Thursday’s debate wasn’t televised but the replay is on the Norwich Bulletin’s website. The candidates will square off again on Sunday at 11 a.m. in their first televised debate on WFSB.