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There was more than a nickel of difference in a debate between the two Republicans running for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat. It was more like $60 million.

The two candidates, Linda McMahon and Chris Shays, squared off Wednesday night in a debate at WVIT’s studios in West Hartford. They face each other in an Aug. 14 primary.

The two agreed that they’d love to cut taxes more and that the U.S. should not get involved militarily in Syria. They offered some differences on the details. But the real difference emerged in their views on money in politics.

That difference reflected an emerging national debate over a growing number of self-financed politicians spending millions of dollars on their campaigns.

McMahon has basically drowned Shays’ campaign out by spending $8 million of her own money. Shays attacked her that. He accused her of “buying” the election while having no political experience. he trumped his 21 years of experience as a U.S. Representative. He also cited his advocacy of campaign finance reform in Washington, seeking to limit corporate and labor financial influence on campaigns and government.

Shays predicted McMahon will spend $60 million of her own money on the campaign this year. (That might subtly suggest that he knows she will likely beat him in the primary.)

He also criticized the way McMahon made her money: through her world-wrestling empire. He cited sexist WWE videos and humor about people with mental retardation that have recently been in the news.

“I wouldn’t want Hugh Hefner as the next United State senator. And I wouldn’t want LInda McMahon,” Shays says.

In response, McMahon portrayed herself as free from “special interest” money. She can spend her own money—earned as a “job-creating” businesswoman, not a “career politician”—without worrying about political action committees or labor or lobbyist cash.

She cited her career in the private sector as the kind of experience needed in D.C. (She offered similar arguments in 2010 when she ran against Democrat Dick Blumenthal for the state’s other Senate seat. Blumenthal won.)

“A career politician—that’s what you are,” she told Shays.

One big surprise in the debate: McMahon criticized No Child Left Behind and the current emphasis on standardized test scores as a way of charting educational approaches. She called for more experimentation, more valuing (rather than blaming) teachers. That reflected the changing, and blurring, ideological lines in the ongoing school reform debate nationally.

Similarly, Shays, by casting the election as a referendum on the influence of money in politics, also blurs the ideological lines.

Read about the nuances of those arguments, of the candidates’ parries and positions, and the money question in the play-by-play live blog and color commentary from tonight’s debate. It follows.

7:01 p.m.  NBC’s Tom Moynihan asks about the nation’s debt. “Is it solvable?” McMahon responds that her “six-point plan” would give $500 tax cuts to “every average family of four.” The elephant in the room: If she wants to cut the nation‘s debt, how would she make up the lost revenue? Critics say you can’t do that without letting Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthy expire. Since the Reagan era, supply-side Republicans have argued that tax cuts generate more overall wealth, and therefore tax revenue.

Shays decries “$4 gasoline.” Calls it not “normal.” Not what you’d hear from the old GOP—since he might still see himself as a viable candidate, he might be trying to appeal to the new right, too. He speaks here of “getting rid of all the waste you see in government,” “simplifying the tax code,” “getting rid of all the absurb regulations.” “My middle-class tax cuts gives people more than hers does,” but it takes more than a tax cut, he says. Still no word about replacing that missed revenue.

7:04 p.m. Question: Let the Bush tax cuts expire?

Oh my. Shays is actually criticizing McMahon for not cutting taxes enough. No word on the original question about debt.

McMahon: She’d keep “the other tax brackets the same” after cutting “middle-class taxes.” Here’s tonight’s line she will apparently be repeating: “I have plans to cut taxes on the middle class.” Six minutes in, we’ve heard it twice.

Now McMahon targets her real opponent: Chris Murphy. (“Voted to raise the debt ceiling eight times” in the U.S. Congress.)

7:08 p.m. Bill Dudjock from New Britain has a video-recorded question: How will you bring jobs back?

McMahon: “We need to make sure that we have a competitive tax rate.” Reduce taxes from 35 percent to 20 percent for corporations, while getting rid of “loopholes.” I wonder if NBC will ask how candidates plan to avoid further expanding the debt by forgoing so much tax revenue.

Side note: The Democrats here are trying to piggyback on President Obama’s success in putting Mitt Romney on the defense for not returning more of his tax returns. They’re calling on McMahon to release hers. One reason: This very question from Bill from New Britain. They want to see if her investments send jobs overseas.

“I have the experience and the knowledge to get it done,” says Chris Shays. Here’s one of his main arguments in this campaign: “I’m not going to be a junior senator when I get there.” He’s been in Washington 21 years. He has experience. She doesn’t.

To which McMahon now responds: We don’t want to “send” the “same” “career politicians” to Washington. “We need job creators, not career politicians.” Where have we heard that before? Oh yeah: In the 2010 Senate debates between McMahon and Democrat Dick Blumenthal.

7:12 p.m. The candidates are asked about Obamacare. Shays: “Repeal it.” Replace “state by state” it with tort reform, some “pooling” (a main thrust of the Obama health plan), and “portability” (allowing people to buy their insurance plans across state lines).

McMahon: The Obama law will increase, not cut, health care costs. And will raise taxes. “Some folks think that they now have free health insurance. That is not the case.” She cits the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Health Care Act by saying a mandate to buy insurance is actually a “tax.” In case you missed it the other 15 times already in this debate, taxes are always bad, especially in tough economic times, according to the candidates.

7:15 p.m. Asked about contraception, McMahon says, yes, it should be available to women. This is Connecticut: GOP candidates don’t have to join the jihad against birth control to get votes.

“I’ve always supported in a woman’s right to choose. I believe in stem cell research,” Shays says. There are his moderate bonafides. Now he attacks McMahon for making money through exploiting women in world wrestling campy videos running around “in their underwear.” “I wouldn’t want Hugh Hefner as the next United State senator. And I wouldn’t want Linda McMahon. It’s not right to say you care about women and run a program that denigrates women.” He also brings up the attack du jour circulating in media and political circles: the WWE video making fun of a man with mental retardation lusting after a woman’s “boobs” in the ring. (Read about that and watch the video here.)

McMahon responds that Shays has his “facts wrong.” Then she pivots to how she’s a business person who creates jobs. Now which facts were wrong?

It’ll be interesting to see how those attacks play out throughout the campaign. Will the Democrats be able to turn people against McMahon’s WWE camp as sexist exploitation? Or will voters see them as harmless entertainment and a legitimate business venture? Guessing it’ll break differently along class and gender lines.

7:21 p.m. Question: Will you return your tax returns?

McMahon: “When they are done, I will release them.”

Shays: “When will they be done?” Now Shays attacks McMahon for stiffing editorial boards ( a no-no under old campaign rules; not sure it’s even remotely relevant any more); agreeing to only two debates with him; not releasing her tax returns. “What Mrs. McMahon wants to do is buy the election.” He predicts she’ll spend $60 million in this campaign. “All the meetings she has are scripted, just like this debate is scripted.” A meta moment!

McMahon: The returns are not done. (It’s July!)

7:23 p.m. “Why should I vote in this year’s election given the influence of money and politics?” asks a viewer on video> Obviously a lefty: He’s mentioning the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Softball for Shays: McMahon is spending $60 million. “She’s a walking, um, spokesperson for the WWE.” He recalls working with McCain in 2007 trying to limit corporate and business money in campaigns. He criticizes Citizens United for saying a corporation is an “individual” and can “spend whatever it wants.” “It’s dangerous.”

McMahon responds the way Democrat Ned Lamont did when facing criticism of his own self-financing of campaigns (i.e. trying to buy office) in the 2008 and 2010 campaigns: He’s not taking “special interest” or political action committee (PAC) money. That’s the argument often used by wealthy self-financers: they’re free to avoid the compromising effect of corporate or lobbyist or union money. I think that does sell with many Americans, who have a bias toward self-made business people, based on a Horatio Alger-like predisposition to see America as a level playing field for class mobility. This season’s brewing resentment against “the 1 percent” probably won’t swing an election, but might act as something of a counterbalance against that bias. This Senate race will help test and update that proposition.

7:30 p.m. Q: What do we do about Syria?

McMahon: Assad’s “genocide” “must be stop.” We have to help “humanitarian aid” to get through. But—a big but—the U.S. should not get involved militarily. Instead, we should “continue our pressure on Russia” so “they stop providing Syria with helicopters.”

Shays: Throat-clearing; “I’ve been in the theater of Iraq and Afghanistan 24 times. I’ve met with Mr. Assad.” OK. Foreign policy credentials. Get it. Now specifics: Work through countries closest to Syria, in the Middle East. But he agrees that our military intervention would be a mistake. “They’ve got to work this out.” Pivots to Iran: “We have to have a relationship with China and Russia” to maintain influence. “We have to recognize we want their help … to solve the problems that exist around the world.”

That was interesting! A real discussion. Real positions. And some details.

7:35 p.m. Q: Would you vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)?

McMahon seeks cover by mentioning that President Clinton, a Democrat, pushed the bill originally. McMahon said the states should decide it. So she won’t vote to repeal it. She’s not mentioning that Democrats passed it (with a misreading of changing historical trends) to prevent Republicans from taking more drastic action against gay marriage. The world has changed now. The president now supports gay marriage, because younger voters are moving the needle on the issue.

Shays says she won’t vote to repeal it either, but that he expects federal courts to rule it unconstitutional. Shays then runs for safer ground for expressing outrage against gay discrimination: he’s outraged that gays are treated unfairly in the armed services when they’re fighting for our country.

7:45 p.m. NBC’s Moynihan asks whether the candidates agree with what Ronald REagan said back in 1980: That the Department of Education should be eliminated. (It never was.)

Shays says the federal government’s size can be reduced by 20 percent. “Three people leave, you hire one person. … If we don’t, we will not grow this economy.” That will enable the country’s economic growth to run to an annual 4 percent rate, he said.

McMahon: Department of Education has over 4,300 workers. Who earn “almost double the salary of our teachers.”

Now she says something interesting, and unorthodox for some Republicans: That we might be teaching too much to the test in America. She says No Child Left Behind should be “reformed” or “repealed.” “Let’s reward our teachers.” Wow! Teachers have been the target, standardized tests the gold standard of much conservative educational reform.

“Let’s make sure we are teaching them in the best way that they can learn,” McMahon says.

She does say she’d like to see the federal education department at least cut drastically, if not eliminated. She’d like to see states experiment more rather than respond to federal dictates. That’s an old Republican criticism of, say, civil rights legislation But now the ideological lines have blurred on the federalism argument, especially when it comes to education. Liberal reformers in some cases also have called for decentralized, less standardized prescriptions. While some conservatives and some liberals have embraced the tenets of No Child Left Behind.

7:52 p.m. Closing statements.

Shays begins by complaining that “I wish there were more debates … but Mrs. McMahon doesn’t want to have more debates.” True. But I have the sense that that kind of complaint—like the argument that she shouldn’t shun editorial boards—won’t resonate with voters.

On the other hand, he argues that someone shouldn’t be able to “buy this election” with “$60 million.” He casts the election as a referendum on money in politics.

The McMahon reminds us: She has a plan! To cut middle-class taxes.