Linda McMahon, a political newcomer spending her personal fortune on campaign commercials and mailings, has taken a 10-point lead in the Republican race for U.S. Senate, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal continues to hold wide leads in matchups with each of his three Republican rivals: McMahon, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and Peter Schiff.

But the biggest shift in the first Quinnipiac poll in two months is McMahon’s surge to a lead of 44 percent to 34 percent over Simmons, with Schiff trailing with 9 percent and 12 percent undecided.

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“What explains Linda McMahon’s rise in the polls?  Money.  She is the only Senate candidate on TV right now,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director.

McMahon, a founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, trailed Simmons by 10 percent points in the previous Quinnipiac poll, but she is a major presence on television. She has promised to spend as much as $50 million of her own money on the campaign.

Her campaign spokesman, Ed Patru, attributed the shift to her campaign offering Republicans “a fresh face and a new approach.”

“We are very encouraged by the results of this poll. We have said for months that the momentum behind Linda’s candidacy is real and undeniable. This poll confirms what we are seeing in our own internal polls: Linda’s standing against Rob Simmons continues to improve month by month, and Republicans are excited about Linda being their nominee against Dick Blumenthal this fall,” he said.

The Simmons’ campaign downplayed the shift as attributable to money.

“It should be no surprise to anyone that after six months and millions and millions of dollars in uncontested spending, including on misleading negative attack mail against Rob Simmons that deemed riddled with falsehoods, that Linda McMahon would be able to buy an improvement in her polling,” said Jim Barnett, Simmons’ manager.

A Quinnipiac poll in January had Simmons leading McMahon, 37 percent to 27 percent, with 4 percent for Schiff and 28 percent undecided.

McMahon’s new lead belies what Quinnipiac found to be an antipathy to self-funded candidates.

By 46 percent to 36 percent, voters said they prefer a candidate who relies on campaign donations, rather than a wealthy candidate who pays for his or her own campaign.

Republicans will endorse a candidate at a nominating convention in May. Their primary is August 10.

In the new poll, Blumenthal, who entered the race after a politically wounded U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd withdrew January 6, has an 81 percent to 6 percent lead over Merrick Alpert in the Democratic race. Dodd remains unpopular, with a disapproval rating of 58 percent, unchanged from January.

Schwartz said Blumenthal remains well-positioned with an approval rating near 80 percent.

Blumenthal leads McMahon, 61 percent to 28 percent. He leads Simmons, 62 percent to 26 percent, and Schiff,  64 percent to 21 percent.

“While money could make the difference in the Republican primary, it will have less of an effect in the general election,” Schwartz said. “It is very hard to change the public’s opinion of an elected official they have known and liked for 20 years.”

McMahon and Simmons have been trading jabs at each other for weeks, with Simmons criticizing McMahon for the racy content of some WWE television shows and raising questions about the use of steroids by her company’s wrestlers. Schiff, an investment adviser and television pundit, has been largely ignored

Schiff has a passionate following nationally for his prediction of the 2008 recession, but it has not translated yet into support among Connecticut voters. He remains unknown by 85 percent of respondents in the new poll, nearly the same as two months ago.

It appears that the attacks between Simmons and McMahon have come at a price: McMahon’s unfavorability rating jumped five percentage points, from 21 percent to 26 percent, and Simmons’ rose from 18 to 21 percent.

But McMahon’s favorables rose even more, from 24 percent to 36 percent. Simmons’ rose from 36 percent to 38 percent.

Schwartz said much of her support came from women, conservatives and Tea Party supporters.

The poll found some potential weaknesses for McMahon.

Her wrestling experience was a negative, with voters saying 33 percent to 15 percent it made them less likely to support her. Nearly half said it made no difference. Voters’ opinions of wrestling also was unfavorable, 54 percent to 17 percent.

“Democrats have already stated publicly that they have the goods to easily destroy a McMahon candidacy if they are fortunate enough to have her as the Republican nominee, and there is no amount of money that can save it,” Barnett said.

Being seen as an “outsider” was a wash, the poll found. Forty-five percent said they preferred a candidate with experience and 45 percent said they preferred an outsider.

The Tea Party movement did not appear to resonate among the general electorate, but it could be a force in a Republican primary, the poll found.

Only 23 percent called themselves supporters overall, but the movement is favored among Republicans, 50 percent to 41 percent. Self-identified Tea Party supporters favored McMahon over Simmons, 47 percent to 29 percent, with 11 percent backing Schiff.

It remains unclear, however, the extent to which Tea Party supporters are Republicans or plan to register in time for the primary. The poll did not screen for likely primary voters.

The poll also found that President Obama’s approval rating has dipped by one percentage point to 54 percent. Forty-two percent disapprove of his performance.

On the economy, respondents disapproved of Obama’s performance, 50 percent to 46 percent.

Still, 56 percent of voters expressed hope that the next senator generally supports the president, with 36 percent opposed.

The poll is based on a telephone survey of 1,451 self-identified registered voters from March 9 to 15. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

The Republican sample of 387 voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. The Democratic sample of 549 has a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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