Republican Linda McMahon is much better known than her three main rivals in next year’s U.S. Senate race, but most of those who know enough to form an opinion say it’s a negative one, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

And while McMahon is widely favored over former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays among Republicans for the GOP Senate nomination, Shays matches up better against Democrats in the general election, making McMahon’s electability an early issue as she prepares to formally declare her candidacy next week.

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Either of the two best-known Democrats in the race, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy or former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, is preferred over McMahon by at least eight percentage points. Murphy leads in a Democratic primary, 36 percent to 26 percent, with one-third undecided.

Murphy also is preferred over Shays, but Shays gets a slim edge over Bysiewicz.

President Obama’s approval rating in the state fell to a low of 48 percent. He still is favored over either of the leading Republicans, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, but he is not nearly the same asset at the top of the ticket in Connecticut as he was in 2008, when he won 61 percent of the vote.

The early poll in the U.S. Senate race – McMahon and Shays have yet to officially announce, and the Democrats’ campaigning is low-key – largely provides a glimpse at how well recognized are the candidates for an open seat held by the retiring U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.

Based on early polling, Ned Lamont would have trounced Dannel Malloy in the Democratic primary for governor last year, then glided to a general-election victory over any of the GOP candidates. In reality, Malloy won the primary in a landslide, then barely squeaked by Republican Tom Foley.

But today’s survey gives some sense of the strengths and weaknesses of a second run for U.S Senate by McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive who spent a record $50 million to win 43 percent of the vote in a Senate race with Democrat Richard Blumenthal last year.

“McMahon is much better known than Shays, but she doesn’t run as well in the general election. And not many voters have a good opinion of her,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director.

As was the case in 2010, McMahon still does not poll well among women. Only 35 percent of women had a favorable opinion of McMahon, compared with 42 percent of men. But she begins a campaign well-positioned to compete for the GOP nomination, with a 67 percent-to-17 percent favorable rating among Republicans.

The poll also shows how difficult it is for a congressman to establish name-wide recognition. Shays and Murphy are not as well known as McMahon, the beneficiary of the most extensive campaign advertising ever seen in Connecticut, or Bysiewicz, who was a statewide office holder for 12 years.

Only 15 percent of voters said they had no opinion of McMahon, compared to 44 percent for Shays, 33 percent for Bysiewicz and 45 percent for Murphy. But she is the only one whose favorable rating (38 percent) is outweighed by her unfavorable (45 percent.)

Shays’ favorable-unfavorable split was 41 percent to 14 percent, while Murphy’s was 38 percent to 16 percent. Bysiewicz’s was 39 percent to 27 percent.

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McMahon’s early lead over Shays among GOP voters is 50 percent to 35 percent, while Murphy beats her, 49 percent to 39 percent, and Bysiewicz leads her by a similar margin, 46 percent to 38 percent.

But Shays, who lost his 4th Congressional District seat to Democrat Jim Himes in 2008, trails Murphy by six percentage points, 43 percent to 37 percent. He actually leads Bysiewicz by two points, 42 percent to 40 percent. Murphy won his 5th District seat in 2006.

Murphy, Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong of Stamford are declared candidates for the Democratic nomination. Tong was preferred by just one percent of Democrats.

McMahon is expected to announce to candidacy next week, with Shays to follow within the month.

Even as public opinion of Congress falls, the state’s two senators fare well in the latest poll.

Blumenthal, the long-time attorney general elected last fall, has an approval-disapproval rating of 60 percent to 23 percent, up from a 54-25 split in June.

And Lieberman’s approval rating has crept back into positive territory, 51 percent to 40 percent. Last summer, those numbers were reversed.

The president was not as fortunate. His approval-disapproval numbers are now an even split, 48 percent to 48 percent, a record low for him in Connecticut. In June, they were 53 percent to 44 percent.

Asked if he deserves to be re-elected, 49 percent say yes and 46 percent say no, down from 51 percent and 43 percent in June.

But the GOP field is less popular. Obama is preferred over Romney, 49 percent to 36 percent, and over Perry, 52 percent to 33 percent. Romney, who lost the 2008 GOP primary here to John McCain, 52 percent to 33 percent, is favored over Perry among Republicans, 37 percent to 19 percent.

No other Republican was in double digits.

The poll was based on a telephone survey of 1,230 registered voters from Sept. 8 to 13. The questions posed to all voters have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

The primary samples are smaller, with higher margins of error: 332 Republicans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4 percentage points; and 447 Democrats, with a marging of error of plus or minus 4.6 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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