The Republican and Democratic candidates competing to be the next US Senator representing Connecticut will debate tonight at the Bushnell in Hartford—and the stakes couldn’t be higher for Linda McMahon and Richard Blumenthal. The race is within the margin of error in the last Quinnipiac University poll and clearly the momentum has been on Mrs. McMahon’s side.

Despite what the so-called “experts” think, this debate at this point in this campaign couldn’t be more important. In Sunday’s Hartford Courant, we were treated to op-ed pieces by Q-poll director Doug Schwartz and vanquished gubernatorial contender Ned Lamont—two odds choices to tell us what to expect and whether this debate is important.

Schwartz’s latest poll puts the race at a dead heat. Observers are still looking askance at Q-polls since one just before the primaries put Democrat Lamont ahead of ultimate winner Dan Malloy by three points. Malloy won by 12. In his Courant op-ed, Schwartz hits us with stats and numbers but fails to realize that voters don’t have to watch the debate to be influenced by it. Media coverage of the event can sway voters as much as those watching it. (No word on whether either campaign got Schwartz’s column before it was printed.)

Similarly, we need to take what Ned Lamont has to say about the debate with an entire shaker filled with salt. Lamont writing about debates is like Lindsay Lohan writing about rehab—they both did everything to avoid participating before being forced to. Analysts will for years to come talk about the damage done to Lamont’s campaign when, after getting smoked by Malloy in the first debate, did everything humanly possible to avoid a second (and simultaneously running radio ads claiming he won the first).

Here’s The Shad’s view of the debate:
• Blumenthal need not hit McMahon over the head with a metaphorical metal folding chair. He simply needs to show the contrast between him and her on the critical issues. McMahon thus far in this campaign either can’t or won’t tell us where she stands on the issues: Medicare, social security and job creation (other than there has to be some). When reporters asked McMahon where she stood on the minimum wage, she responded like they asked her to explain cold fusion.
• McMahon needs to show her qualifications for the seat go beyond the fact that she’s not a politician and that she has several wheel-barrels full of money moving between the tractor-trailers full of money in her Greenwich-gated backyard and her campaign.
• Much of the debate will rely on what questions will be asked. Fortunately, we couldn’t have better local reporters doing the questioning. Laurie Perez of FOX-CT and Chris Keating of the Courant are two of the best in the game (and Shad favorites and friends). Brett Baier could be a wild card. The FOX-News Channel anchor is the moderator. While our own FOX-CT plays it right down the middle, there’s no getting around the fact that FOX-News leans so far to the right, they almost tip over.

In any event, the debate airs live from the Bushnell tonight at 7. And if you’re interested, I’ll be appearing on NBC-CT’s (Channel 30) morning show with Brad Drazen both tomorrow morning to analyze the Blumenthal-McMahon debate and Wednesday morning to do the same for the Tom Foley-Dan Malloy debate taking place at the Bushnell tomorrow night.

Game on.