Linda McMahon came out for corporations’ “free speech rights” in bankrolling campaigns — then said that, unlike her opponent, Chris Murphy, she doesn’t need their money.

The burning question of “corporate personhood” prompted the most revealing exchange Monday night as the Republican McMahon and Democrat Murphy squared off in the third debate of their neck-and-neck race to replace Joe Lieberman in the U.S. Senate. It offered not one but two different ways of looking at the issue.

The hour-long debate at New London’s Garde Arts Center produced other clear differences between the two candidates, especially on the role of tax cuts versus government investment in re-charging the economy. And, when it came to McMahon skipping a chance to brand her opponent a “liberal” in order to try and seize the moderate “independent” label for herself, the debate showed a difference an election cycle or two can make in the way politicians present themselves to voters.

A blow-by-blow live blog and analysis of the debate appears further down in this story.

Mark Davis of WTNH, one of the debate’s sponsors, asked the candidates if they would support a constitutional amendment overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which defined corporations as people in terms of free-speech rights. That opened the door to unlimited corporate cash in this year’s election cycle.

Murphy jumped at the chance to blast the decision and embrace the amendment. He then used the opening to bring up McMahon’s personal wealth; she poured $50 million into her unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign and appears to be on a similar spending trajectory this time around. Murphy spoke of the dangers of having wealthy people buy elections.

In responding, McMahon didn’t address the personhood question. Instead, she pointed out that, unlike Murphy, she doesn’t accept political action committee money (one avenue for corporations and unions to influence elections). In effect, she made the Bloomberg argument: That by enjoying her own wealth and bankrolling her own campaigns, she is insulated from the influence of “special interests.” Unlike people like Murphy or most other office-seekers, who have debts. That’s been Michael Bloomberg’s basic rationale for buying three terms as new York’s mayor.

WTNH’s Davis pressed McMahon to answer the original query, and then she did: Unlike Murphy, she said she would not support the amendment. She agreed with the Supreme Court majority’s argument that corporations should enjoy the same “free speech” rights — translated into the right to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns — as breathing human beings.

That gave Murphy another opportunity, to decry the ability of “anonymous corporations” to “corrupt democracy” by “buying elections.”

In brief interviews with reporters after the debate, McMahon reiterated her position that a corporation exercises a First Amendment right by buying a campaign ad. Murphy was asked about McMahon’s point about being freed from special-interest influence.

“I support a clean-election fund at the federal level just like we have one at the state level,” Murphy said. “I’m going to fight very hard as a senator to rid campaigns of private money, both on the candidate side and through outside groups.”

Much of the post-election spin discussion, however, focused on whether it was OK for McMahon supporters to cheer and jeer without permission during the debate — as though that mattered more than, say, foreign affairs, about which the debate included one question (bomb Iran?), on which both candidates agreed. (Answer: Only as a last resort.)

Meanwhile, questions about the retiring Lieberman’s legacy showed how the political needle has moved in a presidential year. The New London Day’s Paul Choiniere noted that the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Lieberman a “C” report card and Murphy, a sitting Congressman, an “A” rating. He asked whether that means Connecticut would trade a moderate senator for a “liberal.”

McMahon, who in the Tea Party-influenced 2010 election ran as an anti-liberal candidate, passed up the chance to brand Murphy a liberal.

Instead, she tried her best — as she has in her advertising — to avoid the word “conservative” for herself this time, and instead branded herself a “moderate” and “independent” “pro-choice” candidate. That’s where both sides apparently see the race possibly tipping: appealing to moderate female voters turned off by national Republican extremists.’

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