Republican Linda McMahon has pulled to within 10 percentage points of Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the U.S. Senate race, picking up 7 points in less than three weeks, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

In the GOP contest, her 27-point lead has shrunk to 17 points among likely voters in next week’s three-way primary for U.S. Senate.

The Republican front runner for five straight months, McMahon has a 47 percent to 30 percent lead over Rob Simmons, who reactivated his suspended campaign two weeks ago and has gained 10 points since the previous poll on July 16. Peter Schiff trails with 14 percent, still unknown to 61 percent of GOP voters.

blumenthal-mcmahon 8-4-10

Blumenthal, McMahon: The race tightens

In general-election matchup, Blumenthal’s lead is 50 percent to 40 percent, down from 54 percent to 37 percent.

“The McMahon-Blumenthal Senate race in Connecticut could be a real smackdown, as the Republican has the money and momentum, cutting into Blumenthal’s lead month to month,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director.

The poll of likely Republican primary voters is Quinnipiac’s second since July 16, when McMahon was favored by 52 percent, Simmons by 25 percent and Schiff by 13 percent.

The two polls released today — one of likely Republican primary voters, the other of self-identified registered voters — show McMahon losing ground in the primary as she gains on her primary target: Blumenthal.

“But as McMahon focuses on Blumenthal, she better watch her back,” Schwartz said. “Rob Simmons has shown surprising strength among Republican voters after jumping back into the primary contest barely two weeks ago. But it might be too little too late for Simmons.”

The candidates are vying to succeed Democrat Christopher J. Dodd, who is retiring after 30 years in the U.S. Senate. The GOP primary is Tuesday.

The Republican race once belonged to Simmons, a former three-term congressman and retired U.S. Army officer, CIA agent, congressional staffer and state legislator.

But McMahon, the rich former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, took over the lead among all Republicans in March after spending heavily on television and direct mail. She already has set a record for spending by a self-funding candidate in Connecticut and promises to eventually spend $50 million.

Simmons suspended his campaign after McMahon won an upset victory for the GOP endorsement at the state nominating convention in May, but kept his name on the ballot.

Two weeks ago, Simmons returned as an active, if unconventional candidate, announcing he would resume advertising to remind Republicans he is on the ballot and they have a choice.

McMahon has largely ignored him, skipping a debate with him, Schiff and two minor-party candidates a week ago at Trinity College. Instead, she has turned her attention to Blumenthal, who was elected attorney general in 1990 and has consistently ranked as one of the state’s most popular and best-known politicians.

“Linda McMahon is spending $50 million in an attempt to buy this Senate seat with negative attacks bombarding Connecticut voters,” said Mindy Meyers, Blumenthal’s campaign manager. “But she can’t buy Dick Blumenthal’s record of standing up to the special interests for the people of Connecticut. So far, all Linda McMahon has demonstrated is that she’s got the money to protect her own interests in a ‘politics as usual’ campaign of negative attacks.”

Dodd said he was sure Blumenthal would rebound once he resumes his own advertising after the primaries.

“Obviously he’s feeling a little naked, I’m sure, right now,” Dodd said.

McMahon said she was encouraged by the poll.

“I think it reinforces the momentum I feel when I’m traveling the state,” McMahon said during a campaign stop at Dottie’s Diner diner in Woodbury.

McMahon had been slowly gaining on Blumenthal. Her surge comes as the airwaves are saturated with her commercials, while Blumenthal, who has no Democratic challenger, is off the air.

Her first advertising attack on Blumenthal hit mailboxes last week. It is a mailer that casts his admitted misstatements about his Vietnam-era service as calculated lies.

Simmons and Schiff have been trying to convince Republican voters that McMahon will fade in the general election once the Democrats begin highlighting the off-color video of WWE shows, some that feature McMahon.

With a limited budget, Schiff is airing a commercial showing footage of McMahon kicking a man in the groin.

Quinnipiac went into the field on July 28, after the mailers attacking Blumenthal arrived. The polling finds McMahon gaining on two important measures.

“Independent voters, the largest bloc of voters in Connecticut, are for the first time evenly divided between Linda McMahon, who gets 46 percent, and Richard Blumenthal, who gets 44 percent.  Blumenthal led 54 to 35 percent among independent voters just three weeks ago,” Schwartz said.

She also is seen for the first time as a significantly stronger competitor with Blumenthal than Simmons. In previous polling, their matchup numbers were similar, but Blumenthal’s lead over Simmons in the latest poll is 19 points, nearly double his lead over McMahon.

Only 9 percent of likely Republican primary voters said their support was based on a candidate’s ability to win in November. Most said they were influenced by a candidate’s positions on issues (54 percent) or experience (27 percent.)

Still, McMahon was identified by 54 percent of Republicans as their best chance for winning the seat, compared to 25 percent for Simmons and 8 percent for Schiff.

The poll found McMahon might have trouble winning over Simmons voters in the general election, should she be the nominee. While 57 percent of Republicans said they definitely would support her in November if she wins next week, 13 percent said they would not.

Only 26 percent of Simmons’ supporters say they definitely would back her in November. She did better with Schiff voters, 47 percent of whom say they definitely would vote for her.

Quinnipiac surveyed 1,299 Connecticut registered voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points from July 28 until Aug. 2. From July 29, to August 2, Quinnipiac  conducted a separate survey of 1,003 Connecticut likely Republican primary voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. These likely voters were selected from lists of people who have voted in past elections.

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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