Exclusive: Linda McMahon on Pro Wrestling, Sarah Palin

In exclusive interview, Conn. Senate hopeful says pro wrestling is "soap opera."

August 9, 2010, 9:40 AM

Aug. 9, 2010 — -- Linda McMahon is best known as the matriarch of the World Wrestling Entertainment empire. So it may come as a shock to see her shaking hands and kissing babies at wholesome state fairs and upscale coffee klatches in her quest to become Connecticut's next U.S. senator.

McMahon's campaign had spent $18 million as of June 30, saturating the airwaves with ads re-introducing her to the public -- not as the woman who once chugged a beer in the ring with Steve "Stone Cold" Austin, but rather a tough-as-nails CEO who transformed a haphazard wrestling circuit into a publicly traded corporation.

And so far, it's worked. McMahon is the front-runner in the Republican primary being held tomorrow.

Watch Bill Weir's interview with Linda McMahon tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

But running as an outsider ready to shake up Washington based on one's business record doesn't come easy when the business is professional wrestling. McMahon has faced questions throughout the campaign about everything from the WWE's allegedly spotty record on steroid abuse to the fact that the company doesn't provide health insurance to its wrestlers.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Nightline anchor Bill Weir, McMahon attributed the high rate of premature deaths in professional wrestling to the "personal habits" of wrestlers and stood by the health policies of the WWE, which drew fire during Congressional hearings in the 1990s.

"It's unfortunate, you know, that you can't change people's -- habits, their personal habits," McMahon told Weir. "I mean, OK, you know, Heath Ledger. That's an ... that's an awful story. It's an addiction. And so... if any of those professional wrestlers who died young had addictions that were outside of the ... which were their practices when they were outside of WWE, we don't have any control over that."

"While they're in WWE, we absolutely have a health and wellness policy," McMahon said. "I'll probably always say 'we,' even though I've resigned as the CEO. It's kind of hard to break a 30-year habit. The WWE has absolutely a very strong health and wellness policy in place, to protect these men and women who perform in this action-adventure soap opera every week."

McMahon has said she is willing to spend $50 million of her own fortune on her campaign. She spoke with "Nightline" not only about the culture of professional wrestling, but also about whether she'd accept or seek an endorsement from Sarah Palin and, should she win the primary, how she will campaign against her general election opponent, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the state's attorney general, who admitted to misstating his Vietnam War record.

Pro Wrestling: Racy Content

Weir asked McMahon about some of the racy content in her past wrestling productions, including one episode in which she kicked someone in the groin and one in which her daughter entered the ring as the crowd chanted, "Slut, slut, slut."

"You have to think about this, WWE, as a soap opera," McMahon said. "So there were segments, there were -- the whole behind-the-scenes scenarios that would go to building into that. So it was acting, it was -- as I said, it's a soap opera. It went from week to week, episodically. ... So sure, there are story lines that are better than others."

McMahon said that the culture of pro wrestling has changed over the years and pointed out that networks now give WWE programming a TV-TG rating, meaning parental guidance is suggested.

McMahon told "Nightline" she had never met Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska governor.

"I don't know Gov. Palin. I've certainly seen her, since she came on the scene, you know, running with John McCain," McMahon said. "She's written a book and had a successful book tour. I enjoy hearing the things that she has to say, and I think she's doing ... what she would like to do to, you know, put herself forward."

Asked whether she would appreciate or seek Palin's endorsement, McMahon said she has not sought endorsements outside Connecticut.

"You know, the state of Connecticut is ... sometimes it's a provincial state," McMahon said. "And I've been working very hard to get the endorsement of the people within our state, and ultimately, the ultimate endorsement is from the voters in the state of Connecticut. And I have not sought any outside endorsements."

"So, no desire to be a 'Mama Grizzly'?" Weir asked.

"Well, I just haven't sought any outside endorsements," McMahon said.

Plans to "Smackdown" Richard Blumenthal

Should McMahon win the primary tomorrow, she will face the Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who survived a political embarrassment in the spring when it was revealed he had repeatedly embellished his military service, implying that he had served in Vietnam when in fact he received multiple draft deferments. Blumenthal did join the Marine Corps Reserve.

McMahon's campaign admits it provided opposition research to reporters in order to draw attention to the story.

"What I hear from the folks in Connecticut, when I'm out talking to them, they are appalled by the fact that he through several years continued to make comments about service in Vietnam, " McMahon told Weir. "But it wasn't a misstatement one time. In my view, I think it was a, a pattern of deception."

McMahon's campaign slogan, "It's Time for Something Different" speaks to her plans to paint Blumenthal as an incumbent in a year when voter anger towards the government is at an all-time high.

"He really is a career government official," McMahon said. "He's not spent a career building or creating jobs or even understanding the consequences of taxes or regulations that are imposed on businesses. And I think that's something that I bring to the table, that -- that he certainly does not. I have created jobs."

Connecticut is generally a dependably blue state, and despite the Vietnam scandal Blumenthal still leads McMahon in the latest poll by 10 points. Though with McMahon's fortune comes the ability to saturate the airwaves with advertisements, making McMahon a serious contender.

Watch Bill Weir's interview with Linda McMahon tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET