A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Republican Linda McMahon and Democrat Chris Murphy opening big leads in their primaries for U.S. Senate, with McMahon being competitive in general election matchups for the open seat for the first time.

The poll released today is a dramatic reversal of a Quinnipiac survey in March that showed Christopher Shays in a dead heat with either Democrat, Murphy or Susan Bysiewicz. Today’s poll undercuts his argument he is the only Republican with a chance to win in November.

McMahon now has a 29-point lead over Shays among Republicans, 59 percent to 30 percent. Murphy leads Bysiewicz by 30 points among Democrats, 50 percent to 20 percent.

But the biggest change is McMahon’s gains among independent voters that pull her to within 3 percentage points of Murphy in a November matchup and actually gives her a lead in a head-to-head with Bysiewicz. She now trails Murphy, 46 percent to 43 percent.

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Her gains come after two rounds of television ads where her campaign was the only one on the air. The Shays campaign says its tracking shows McMahon spent nearly $1.7 million on television through June 3, while Murphy’s data says her combined spending for TV and radio is nearly $3 million for air time reserved through June 13.

Her latest ads went on television the day after Quinnipiac began five days of polling.

While the poll continues to show signficant liabilities for McMahon, its short-term impact undoubtedly will be to make fundraising difficult for Shays and Bysiewicz in the last three weeks of reporting period that ends June 30.

“Linda McMahon is now the clear front-runner for the GOP nod, crushing Congressmen Christopher Shays by 29 points, after having led Shays by only 9 points back in March,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director.

That was the line highlighted in an email blast by the McMahon campaign to supporters.

The poll takes away talking points for Shays and Bysiewicz and is especially damaging for Shays, the former congressman in the 4th District. He built his appeal to GOP voters around the previous poll that showed him as the strongest Republican in November.

Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state, had argued that either she or Murphy, a three-term congressman in the 5th District, matched up well with McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment.

But the new survey shows Murphy now leading McMahon by three points and Shays by eight points, and Bysiewicz losing to McMahon or Shays by four points.

“We have our work cut out for us, but we’ve been in this position before and won,” said Amanda Bergen, Shays’ communication director.

“McMahon’s improvement in the general election against Murphy is due to her better performance among independent voters. She now has 43 percent of these key voters, to Murphy’s 41 percent, overcoming a 15-point deficit in March,” Schwartz said.

Murphy’s campaign used McMahon’s gains as a rallying point for Democrats to unite behind his candidacy.

“McMahon has already spent millions on the air trying to change her image, and ultimately we know that she is going to massively outspend us on the airwaves,” said his spokeswoman, Taylor Lavender.

In a fundraising email to supporters, the Murphy campaign was happy to share news of McMahon’s gain: “It’s simple – her money advantage is working. McMahon’s already spent $3 million on TV ads to rehabilitate her image, and we don’t have the money to be on the air right now.”

The Quinnipiac survey is roughly consistent with internal polling distributed to supporters in recent days by McMahon and Murphy, who each were overwhelmingly endorsed by their state party conventions in May.

No Republican has won a Senate seat from Connecticut since 1982, when Lowell P. Weicker Jr. won the last of his three terms. He lost in 1988 to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is retiring after 24 years.

The poll will reassure Republicans about McMahon’s ability to compete in November, but it has one disquieting number: She still has not exceeded 43 percent in a general-election matchup against Murphy, the same share of the vote she garnered against Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the 2010 race.

And the poll continues to show that McMahon’s association with WWE is a negative, especially among women. The WWE was seen as a significant hindrance in her 2010 race, when she spent $50 million of her own fortune in a contest with Blumenthal, consistently the state’s most popular politician.

“We’ve already proved her money can’t buy a general election. The only question is, do we have to prove it a second time?” asked Matt Wylie, manager of the Shays’ campaign.

The new survey shows that more Connecticut voters now have a favorable opinion of her than unfavorable, 45 percent to 38 percent, with only 16 percent who don’t know enough to form an opinion. In March, her favorabilty rating was underwater, 40 percent to 44 percent.

By more than a 2-1 ratio, voters have a favorable opinion of Murphy and Shays, with more than 40 percent saying they do not know enough to form an opinion. Bysiewicz also generates no opinion among 40 percent of voters, with 33 percent saying their view is favorable and 27 percent unfavorable.

McMahon’s key professional credential, her experience as the former chief executive of WWE, still remains a significant liability, with 38 percent of voters saying it makes them less likely to support her, compared with 21 percent who say it makes them more inclined.

The vast majority of Connecticut voters say more women should be elected to high office, but the prospect of electing the state’s first female U.S. senator is not a plus for McMahon, with 74 percent saying it makes no difference. The remainder are divided.

McMahon still trails significantly among women, 47 percent to 38 percent. She leads Murphy among men, 48 percent to 44 percent.

The poll showed McMahon or Shays should expect no lift from the presidential race in Connecticut, which has gone Democratic in every presidential contest since 1992. President Obama continues to lead Mitt Romney comfortably, 50 percent to 38 percent.

The poll was conducted from May 29 to June 3 and is based on a telephone survey of 1,408 voters. The general election results have margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, while the surveys of 381 Republicans and 538 Democrats have respective margins of error of 5 points and 4.2 points.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

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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