A new poll starkly outlines the strength and weakness of former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District, as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012: He is the Republican with strongest support among independents and Democrats, but GOP primary voters prefer Linda McMahon by at least a 2-1 margin.

Public Polling Institute said Tuesday that its surveys of Connecticut voters show Shays is the Republican with the best shot at an upset win in this Democratic state, but its sample of 400 Republicans who say they usually vote in primaries shows that the GOP is disinclined to give him a chance to prove it.

The poll comes as Shays is about to formally become a candidate for the open Senate seat, taking on an early frontrunner, McMahon, who is trying to brand herself as the inevitable GOP nominee. Since announcing last month, she has rolled out a string of endorsements.

In a companion survey of 400 usual Democratic primary voters, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, is favored over former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, 39 percent to 33 percent, with 8 percent preferring state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford.

It gave GOP voters two hypothetical fields: one with Shays, McMahon, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, and Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy; the other with Shays, McMahon and McCoy.

In the four-way race, McMahon is favored over Shays, 54 percent to 19 percent, with 15 percent for Simmons and 2 percent for McCoy. Without Simmons in the mix, McMahon tops Shays, 60 percent to 27 percent, with McCoy at 3 percent.

Simmons, who ran for the nomination in 2010, has show little evidence of preparing for a rematch with McMahon, who spent $50 million of her own fortune in 2010.

When Shays lost to Democrat Jim Himes in 2008, a year when Barack Obama generated huge turnouts and won 61 percent of the presidential vote in Connecticut, Shays was the only Republican congressman in New England.

But Shays, who expressed mainstream Republican views as a deficit hawk and a backer of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not remembered fondly by Republicans, according to the PPP.

Only 36 percent of GOP voters viewed him favorably, with 29 percent expressing a an unfavorable opinion. Sixty-nine percent of the GOP base said they have a favorable view of McMahon, with only 21 percent unfavorable.

The early polling gives Democrats hope of a 2012 race identical to the 2010 campaign.

McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, easily won the GOP primary in 2010, then lost by 12 percentage points in the general election to the consensus Democratic nominee, Richard Blumenthal.

In general election contests, PPP shows Murphy leading Shays 43 percent to 39 percent and McMahon 50 percent to 43 percent. Bysiewicz trails Shays 34 percent to 48 percent and edges McMahon 47 percent to 46 percent, PPP says.

A difference in 2012 is that Democrats are unlikely to avoid a primary, with Murphy and Bysiewicz competitive among Democratic voters.

Bysiewicz badly stumbled in 2010 as she ended an exploratory campaign for governor to run for attorney general, only to be declared unqualified for the post by a Supreme Court decision.

She trails Murphy in early polling, but the PPP survey gives her some encouragement: She is stronger than Murphy among self-described liberals, an important constituency in a Democratic primary.

She leads Murphy 43 percent to 35 percent among Democrats describing themselves as “very liberal.” Murphy leads 49 percent to 29 percent among voters who are “slightly liberal.”

They break even among moderates.

PPP is a Democratic polling organization, but many of the conclusions from this poll are less favorable to Democrats than those of a recent  Quinnipiac University survey.

Murphy and Bysiewicz show much higher unfavorables in the PPP poll, for example, as does Shays. And while the Q-Poll shows Bysiewicz easily beating McMahon in the general election and neck-and-neck with Shays, the PPP survey makes the Bysiewicz-McMahon race a statistical dead heat and gives Shays an easy win.

PPP’s survey was based on automated telephone polling conducted Sept. 22 to 25. The general election matchups were released last week, while the results drawn from samples of 400 Democrats and 400 Republicans were released Tuesday. The polls of Democrats and Republicans have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 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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