Connecticut's U.S. Senate race features issues that hit you upside the head like a folding chair: body slams, sleeper holds, sexual crudity, steroid abuse.

That's because Republican nominee Linda McMahon, who has spent more than $41.5 million of her own money on the campaign, co-owns World Wrestling Entertainment, and touts the growth of the pro-wrestling empire as proof of her business savvy and a qualification for office.

Not surprisingly, her opponents are focusing on the seamy underbelly of the business. For years, reports have plagued the WWE that many of its wrestlers were urged to abuse steroids to "get big," and recent tragic deaths of several retired performers have been attributed to painkiller addiction or brain damage suffered in the ring.

In one sense, the growth of the WWE, and McMahon's power, traces back to Pennsylvania, which became one of the first states to deregulate pro wrestling after an aggressive lobbying effort - begun in 1987 under the guidance of a young associate at the law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart named Rick Santorum.

Santorum, of course, later was elected to the U.S. House and served two terms in the Senate, rising to become a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He is exploring a run for the 2012 presidential nomination.

Basically, the legislation that Santorum and the company helped draft decreed that professional wresting was not a sport and thus did not need to submit to the oversight of the state's athletic commission and its ring doctors.

"I was at the center of that," Santorum said in a recent interview. "Pennsylvania was the most pernicious of states when it came to regulation. They made you pay all this money to the boxing [athletic] commission. They used to just rape these guys. You'd have to pay a certain percentage of the gate receipts to have these officials just stand around and watch the match. It was ridiculous."

McMahon, who founded the company with her husband, Vince, and was its CEO, is running against Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd. Recent polls show that she trails Blumenthal despite spending a record amount on a Connecticut political race. She has never held public office.

McMahon's company, then called the World Wrestling Federation, learned of Santorum's firm after its lawyers defended a wrestler who had been charged with assaulting a flight attendant on a Pittsburgh-bound plane. Santorum was a recent law-school graduate who had worked on the Republican staff in the state Senate, so he was assigned to lobby for this new client.

He joked that his workdays involved "municipal bonds and real estate transactions and hanging out with Hulk Hogan . . . Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Andre the Giant - I got to meet all those guys."

Whenever there was a wrestling show near Harrisburg, Santorum said, he'd treat leading lawmakers and members of then-Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr.'s staff to a night at the fights, with plenty of food, booze, and soft drinks. They'd troop backstage and see that all the action was scripted, no sport involved, Santorum said.

Eventually, wrestling was freed from regulations in most states, and the WWE grew to become a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

"That's blood money," said Philadelphia lawyer Jimmy Binns, who was then chairman of the state athletic commission. "They treated their wrestlers like fighting cocks or pit bulls, basically like people would treat animals."

Binns quit his post after deregulation was enacted in 1989. He said that the athletic commission, which regulated the safety of boxing matches as a primary duty, was dependent on the 5 percent to 7 percent of the gate receipts it received from the hugely popular wrestling matches, and in his view could no longer properly do its job.

Santorum grew up in Pittsburgh enjoying the exploits of wrestlers who staged matches in local TV studios, including Bruno Sammartino, Chilly Billy, and Pie Traynor, a former Pirates baseball player who turned to the ring in retirement.

After Santorum helped deregulate the industry, wrestling "went through a pretty dark period as far as I was concerned," said Santorum, a leader in social-conservative circles who advocated for government policies friendly to family values.

"It got pretty raunchy, and I tuned it out," he said. "I've heard that they've tried to clean it up again in recent years."

Indeed, the WWE instituted a drug-abuse testing policy and says it has driven steroids out of wrestling. But its history of drug abuse and sexually explicit acts - including performances with wrestlers grabbing their crotches while urging women to perform oral sex on them - have become fodder in the Senate campaign.

On Thursday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released an ad featuring allegations that McMahon tipped off one of the company's ring doctors, George Zahorian of Harrisburg, that he was under federal investigation for distributing steroids to wrestlers. Zahorian was convicted in a 1991 federal trial.

Asked about the allegations earlier this year, McMahon said: "I don't pretend to remember to go back, to revisit all the aspects of that case."

Santorum said that state regulators were not preventing drug use in wrestling before the Pennsylvania legislation he helped get passed.

Linda McMahon no longer gives media interviews. The WWE has begun a publicity campaign to fight what it calls false attacks in the media against the company. Those efforts, including a scheduled Election Day taping of a "Smackdown" in heavily Democratic Bridgeport, earned the company a formal complaint with federal authorities that it is illegally coordinating communications with the McMahon campaign.

"World Wrestling Entertainment will not be bullied or intimidated by whining allegations intended to censor our freedom of speech," said Vince McMahon, who is its chairman and CEO.

Meanwhile, a new Suffolk University poll of 500 likely Connecticut voters conducted Tuesday and Wednesday found Blumenthal leading McMahon by 57 percent to 39 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or