The Senate campaign of former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays got a boost Thursday in a Quinnipiac University poll that shows him pulling to within 9 percentage points of former wrestling executive Linda McMahon among Republicans and running even with leading Democrats in general-election matchups.

The results feed into Shays’ two main talking points: He is competitive with McMahon in a GOP primary, and stronger against any of the Democratic candidates: U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz or state Rep. William Tong.

“In general election matchups, Shays runs neck and neck with either Congressman Christopher Murphy or Susan Bysiewicz, while McMahon trails both of them by double digits,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director.

Murphy tops McMahon, 52 percent to 37 percent. Bysiewicz leads her, 49 percent to 39 percent. But Shays is in a virtual tie with either Democrat, trailing Murphy, 41 percent to 40 percent, and leading Bysiewicz, 43 percent to 42 percent. Tong trails Shays by 25 percentage points and McMahon by 4.

McMahon is favored by only 43 percent of voters in a matchup with the little-known Tong, matching her performance in the 2010 Senate race against the state’s most popular Democrat, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Shays is likely to use that number to suggest it is the ceiling for McMahon in a general election.

“The poll proves what we’ve been saying all along: Chris Shays is the only Republican who can win in November,” said Amanda Bergen, a spokeswoman for Shays.

Among Republicans, the poll shows McMahon’s lead over Shays shrinking from 15 percent points in September. She is still favored 51 percent to 42 percent, with two months before the May nominating conventions and five months before the August primary.

McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, is making her second run for U.S. Senate in as many cycles. She spent $50 million of her own money losing to Blumenthal in 2010, 55 percent to 43 percent.

More voters view her unfavorably (44 percent) than favorably (40 percent).

The McMahon campaign downplayed the importance of a poll in March with a statement reinforcing one of its central talking points: McMahon spent a career in business, while Shays and the Democrats are long-time politicians.

“There will be a lot of polls between now and election day, but the case for Linda’s record as a job creator with a plan to get people back to work will continue to resonate in sharp contrast to any of the professional politicians in this race,” said Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman.

In the race for the Democratic nomination, the race is little changed since the last snapshot taken by Quinnipiac in September: Murphy still leads Bysiewicz, with Tong struggling with just single-digit support.

Murphy, a three-term congressman, is favored by 37 percent of Democrats, Bysiewicz by 25 percent and Tong by 4. The changes from the September poll are statistically insignificant.

Twenty-nine percent of Democrats are undecided, compared with just 6 percent in the GOP race.

Since the poll does not screen for likely primary voters, it does not attempt to answer the question: Who is likely to show up in August?

If the answer in the GOP race is conservatives, McMahon benefits. Her lead among conservatives is 59 percent to 35 percent. Shays leads among moderates, 53 percent to 43 percent.

Shays and McMahon are running even among Republicans who are college-educated and from households with annual incomes of more than $100,000. McMahon is far stronger among Republicans who are less educated and have lower incomes.

McMahon is stronger than Shays among women in a GOP primary, but not in a general-election matchups.

Among Democrats, Murphy leads among all demographics.

The candidates are competing for the seat held by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is retiring.

President Obama, who carried Connecticut in a landslide in 2008, still has double-digit leads against either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum.

From March 14 to 19, Quinnipiac surveyed 1,622 registered voters, including 429 Republicans and 640 Democrats. The November matchups have a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points, with the margins higher in the Republican (4.7 percent) and Democrat (3.9 percent) primary polls.

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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