Two-term U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is more than 5 percentage points behind Republican challenger Sam Caligiuri in northwestern Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, a new poll says.

Caligiuri, a state senator from Waterbury, has a 49.7 to 44.3 percent lead over Murphy, according to the new CT Capitol Report poll conducted by the Merriman River Group. The difference is just outside the poll’s 4.4 percentage point margin of error.

“Chris Murphy appears to be facing an uphill fight to keep his seat,” the poll’s executive director, Matthew Fitch, said. “While the race is obviously competitive, it is often difficult for an incumbent to come back after falling behind a challenger in the last month.”

“I’m really gratified by the results and they confirm what I hear every day,” Caligiuri said. “The voters are very unhappy with the direction we are going in. They are worried about their economic futures.

But Murphy campaign spokesman Kristen Bossi dismissed the poll, which uses an interactive technology with an automated voice  rather than a live operator to conduct the survey. Participants must push buttons to register their responses.

“These numbers are completely out of whack with national forecasts on this race and wildly off from those just released this week, showing Chris with a strong 13 point lead,” she said.

Caligiuri, whose recent ads have hammered Murphy for supporting big deficit spending tied to the federal stimulus program, said 5th District voters are particularly sensitive to the connection between hefty government spending and a sluggish job market. “People out here get it,” he said. “They understand we are growing at an unsustainable rate.”

Fitch said the 5th District is proving to be the most troublesome for Democrats this year.

“It is the strongest district for both Tom Foley and Linda McMahon and is also the district least likely to have a positive opinion of President Obama, by a 43-53 margin,” he said.

Bossi added that “Chris has always known that this campaign would be competitive, considering the independent nature of the Fifth District. With just under four weeks to go, now people will start paying attention and learn that when Caligiuri ran Waterbury, the results weren’t pretty, thanks to his role in bankrupting the city and imposing the largest tax hike Waterbury history.”

Murphy won the seat in 2006 in an upset win over long-time Republican incumbent Nancy Johnson. He won re-election with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2008, and was appointed co-chair of the Frontline Program, the House Democrats’ system of mentoring vulnerable freshmen in this year’s election.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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