WATERBURY, CONN., Jan. 9, 2010 -- Linda McMahon knows her way around the wrestling ring. Now the longtime CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. is plunging into the political ring.
McMahon is one of the Connecticut Republicans battling for the Senate seat now held by Christopher Dodd, a Democrat. Dodd's announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election in 2010 has thrust a spotlight on the race and her candidacy.
Her stunning business success, and her vast personal wealth -- she told ABC News that she will spend $50 millions of her own money on the campaign -- have made McMahon a serious contender.
"Republican activists are paying attention and are impressed," political writer Kevin Rennie said in The Hartford Courant.
But while her accomplishments and earnings from the WWE are buoying McMahon's political hopes, professional wrestling also threatens to be a burden. There are the allegations of steroid abuse, the premature deaths of some wrestlers and those high-octane WWE story lines that have featured sexist, violent and vulgar behavior in -- and out -- of the wrestling ring.
McMahon knows WWE's carefully scripted and staged plots well. She has occasionally been featured in them, as WWE's 16 million weekly television viewers can attest. She's been slapped to the ground by her own daughter and dropped on her head by a wrestler. Then there was the time McMahon kicked a WWE announcer between the legs.
McMahon, 61, dismisses the idea that wrestling's darker side might cloud her chances. She says she's the right candidate for the times.
"Talking with people all around the state, what I'm really hearing is that they want outsiders. They don't want more of the same. They want someone with fresh ideas. They want new blood, new faces," she said recently, after meeting the lunch crowd at a restaurant in this struggling former mill city.
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"I think we are going to change Washington by sending non-politicians to Washington -- people with real-life business experience who do understand how to build a business," McMahon said.
She said she's running because "I am very concerned where our government is taking our country at this particular point -- a mounting debt, free-wheeling spending. ... There's the potential that the American dream that I was able to live will not be there for other generations."
Since September, when she resigned as the WWE's chief executive and declared her candidacy, McMahon has poured $5 million into a blizzard of advertisements and mailings introducing her to voters.
The spending blitz has chased some opponents from the race and put McMahon within striking distance of her chief rival for the GOP nomination, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons. The winner will likely face Democrat Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's popular attorney general.
McMahon is one of three prominent Republican businesswomen jumping from the corporate arena to the political arena this year. In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is running for governor and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiornia is running for the Senate.
McMahon's ads trumpet her rags-to-riches life story -- how McMahon and her husband emerged from bankruptcy to build their business into an international entertainment juggernaut and pop culture phenomenon that employs 575 people and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
She is also a member of the state Board of Education, a trustee of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connect., and a prolific donor to charities.
What her ads do not mention is that her business is World Wrestling Entertainment, and that her husband is Vince McMahon, the creative force behind the WWE and the company's high-profile public face, who has feuded and fought and even wrestled with the WWE's wrestlers.
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Linda McMahon says the omission should not be interpreted as an effort to distance herself from the WWE.
"Oh, heavens no. I am so proud of the company that I've been on the ground floor in building, from two employees when just my husband and I shared a desk in the basement of our house," she said.
Some retired wrestlers have spoken out against her candidacy because of the direction professional wrestling has taken under the McMahons.
"The vulgarity, the nudity, the profanity, all that ... it bothers me," Bruno Sammartino, a star wrestler in the 1960s and '70s, told Politico.com. Others have denounced the McMahons for the WWE's failure to provide its wrestlers health insurance.
In her interview with ABC News here, Linda McMahon acknowledged, "We have pushed the envelope -- not always, you know, successfully, because we can know right away when we push too far. Sponsors let us know."
She added, "It's a soap opera. It's the longest running episodic series on television. ... You're in television; you know what it must be like to create six, seven hours of [...] original television every week -- two hours of which are live -- 52 weeks a year, without any reruns. Sometimes you're gonna be better at it than you are at others."
McMahon also acknowledged that "it took a while to get into focusing on all these particular issues" involving the health of the WWE's wrestlers.
"As our company has grown and as we have matured and are able to do more and more things, we're much more in tune, much more sensitive, to taking care of these men and women," she said.
McMahon said she's confident voters will take her seriously, despite videos bouncing around the Internet showing her taking part in the some of the WWE's over-the-top antics.
"Have [voters] seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in the "Terminator" movies?," she said. "Have they, did they, ever watch Ronald Regan in any of his old movies?"
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McMahon added with a laugh, "By the way, when I look at myself in an acting role, I know I'm going to keep my day job."
Still, moving out from under the shadow of the WWE does present complications. For the moment, Linda McMahon does not foresee campaigning with her husband, Vince.
"Look, since I resigned as the CEO, he's now the chairman and the CEO. He's pretty much got his hands full," she said. "I think right now it's really very important ... for me to establish who I am."