Waterbury — On the eve of a hurricane-induced break in the political season, Bill Clinton gave Democrats a 30-minute pep talk Sunday, framing U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy’s race for U.S. Senate as an election of national interest.

“We’re coming down to the 11th hour. We’re facing a violent storm,” Clinton said. He waited a beat, then added, “It’s nothing compared to the storm we’ll face if you don’t make the right decision in this election.”

Murphy Clinton

Chris Murphy enjoys Bill Clinton’s speech.

The partisan crowd in the Palace Theater erupted in cheers for Clinton, whom a recent poll shows is more popular than he’s been at any time since his election 20 years ago, with two-thirds of registered voters viewing him favorably.

Clinton’s visit is a boost to Murphy and Elizabeth Esty, the Democrat vying to succeed him, but it also is a sign that their races remain close enough to warrant a weekend stop by one of the Democrats’ key campaign assets.

He is campaigning on behalf of President Obama on Monday in the swing state of Ohio. The president, who was supposed to join Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, will remain the White House to monitor the storm.

Waterbury is in the 5th Congressional District, which Murphy has represented for six years, but Republicans performed strongly here two years ago, with Republican Tom Foley outpolling Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in the district.

As he did during the Democratic National Convention, when he was dubbed the explainer in chief, Clinton cast the election in simple terms.

Using independent estimates that the United States is poised to grow 12 million new jobs in the next four years, Clinton first made the case that the economy already is recovering — and that Mitt Romney is promising jobs that Obama is about to deliver.

“Every time Mr. Romney promises us 12 million jobs, I want to gag,” Clinton said. “It’s actually not a bad promise.”

Clinton said that Obama, backed by congressmen like Murphy, took emergency action to stabilize the U.S. economy, such as emergency loans to General Motors and Chrysler that already have been repaid with interest.

Romney and Linda McMahon, the GOP Senate nominee, would not have made those loans, he said.

Clinton said the U.S. also has added 500,000 new manufacturing jobs in the last 32 months, the first time that has happened since he was president.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Clinton said.

Murphy never moved from Clinton’s side. The pair stood on stage with a simple backdrop of an oversized American flag. Video photographers recorded the speech and crowd shots, suggesting that Clinton soon will be on the air in a Murphy ad.

Murphy, Clinton

Murphy and Clinton on stage.

The Palace appeared at or near its capacity of 2,543. Originally scheduled for Library Park in Waterbury, the Murphy campaign moved the rally inside when rain threatened.

“This is a huge boost for our campaign heading into the final stretch here,” said Ben Marter, a spokesman for Murphy. “Clinton was an extraordinarily popular president. It helps to really energize people in these final nine days.”

But the appearance was unlikely to get much time on television, with the focus of every newscast on the approaching storm, Sandy.

“He energized people who were there and people who are going to hear about it to get out in these last nine days and — right after the storm is over — make sure that everybody is out there voting,” Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said.

In fact, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave a storm assessment from the stage before making his appeal for Obama, Murphy and Esty. He quickly exited the theater to return to the Emergency Operations Center in Hartford.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, skipped a chance to bask in the spotlight with Clinton, heading instead on a tour of shelters in Bridgeport.

In an email blast, McMahon skipped her usual daily campaign update and urged her supporters to prepare for the storm and check the website set up by Malloy.

Esty and her Republican challenger, Andrew Roraback, also took a step back from campaigning, canceling an AARP debate that was to be held Monday in Waterbury.

The storm could be a major distraction to the campaigns of both Senate candidates, disrupting get-out-the-vote efforts and even television advertising if large swaths of the state are without power for a prolonged period.

For at least 36 hours and possibly beyond, neither Murphy nor McMahon can expect much news coverage.

The trip Sunday was not Clinton’s first on behalf of Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, the state he carried in 1992, ending the GOP’s 24-year dominance here in presidential years.

Clinton campaigned for Richard Blumenthal, his Yale law school classmate, in 2010, when Blumenthal defeated McMahon for the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Chris Dodd.

In July 2006, Clinton headlined a rally in the Palace Theater for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, unsuccessfully pleading three weeks before the Democratic primary for the party to re-nominate Lieberman, despite his support for the war in Iraq.

Ned Lamont won the primary, but Lieberman won re-election as an independent with the de facto support of the Republican Party, setting the stage for this year’s wide open race.

With no base among Democrats or Republicans this year, Lieberman is retiring after 24 years in the Senate.

This year, Clinton endorsed Dan Roberti over Esty in the congressional primary, recording a video message for him. Roberti was in the crowd Sunday.

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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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