Quinnipiac University’s first poll of the 2014 gubernatorial race shows Gov. Dannel P. Malloy slightly trailing Republican Tom Foley, the man he beat three years ago in Connecticut’s closest gubernatorial contest in a half-century.

Malloy, a Democrat still dogged by the weak economy that greeted his inauguration in January 2011, trails 43 percent to 40 percent in a matchup with Foley, according to a poll released Wednesday. Malloy leads other potential GOP challengers by seven percentage points.

The survey finds the electorate evenly divided on a governor who has raised taxes, battled with state employees over concessions and teachers over education reforms, while betting heavily on bioscience as Connecticut’s economic future.

A strong majority of voters polled consider Malloy trustworthy and possesing strong leadership skills, but the governor who was elected with 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 2010 never has topped 50 percent in any of Quinnipiac’s key polling measures.

His job-approval rating is 47 percent to 47 percent. Voters who say he deserves re-election are slightly outnumbered by those who say he doesn’t, 44 percent to 46 percent. Voters with an overall favorable opinion of him slightly outnumber those who don’t, 46 percent to 44 percent.

“These are not terrible numbers. They are decent numbers,” said Douglas Schwartz, the poll’s director. “They are not surprising numbers.”

Schwartz said that the early poll establishes a benchmark, a measure of where the potential candidates stand 17 months before the election. In a benchmark poll Quinnipiac took in late 2009, Malloy was a little-known mayor running third in a three-way Democratic field with nine percent.

Foley, a wealthy Greenwich businessman and former ambassador who largely self-funded his 2010 race, has not declared his candidacy, but he says he is a likely challenger to Malloy.

The poll shows him preferred by Republican voters over three potential GOP rivals, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

Foley is favored by 36 percent of GOP voters, compared with 37 percent with no choice and 11 percent for McKinney, 4 percent for Cafero and 8 percent for Boughton. Another 5 percent say they wouldn’t vote or they support someone else.

Foley, whose favorability rating was evenly divided as a candidate in 2010, is viewed favorably by 35 percent of voters and unfavorably by 18 percent. Forty-six percent did not know enough to offer an opinion.

He was the only Republican recognized by a majority of voters. Seventy-five percent of voters did not know enough about McKinney to express an opinion, and even fewer knew enough about Cafero (81 percent) or Boughton (84 percent).

Foley’s biggest early weakness is his unpopularity among women. He trails Malloy among women by five points, 43 percent to 38 percent. Among GOP voters, Foley’s support among men (47 percent) is double that of women (23 percent). 

The worst news for Malloy in the early poll is that he trails among unaffiliated voters, the largest bloc of voters in Connecticut, by 21 points. Voters also are pessimistic on the economy: Only 20 percent say it is getting better and 31 percent say it is getting worse.

“On the plus side for Malloy, Connecticut voters say 57 to 38 percent he has strong leadership qualities, no doubt due to his response to various crises in the state from Hurricane Sandy to the Newtown shootings,” Schwartz said.

The gun-control measures Malloy sought after the deaths of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last December are strongly supported, 57 percent to 37 percent.

The restrictions on high-capacity ammo magazines and semiautomatic weapons with certain characteristics were deemed “about right” by 32 percent, while 35 percent say they “go too far” and 27 percent say they “don’t go far enough.”

Keno, an electronic gambling game approved by the legislature this month, was opposed across the board in the new poll. By 59 percent to 35 percent, voters say it should not be allowed in restaurants, bars and convenience stores.  

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was elected in 2010, has the highest job-approval rating: 62 percent to 28 percent. The approval-disapproval split for Sen. Chris Murphy, who was elected in 2012, was 52 percent to 32 percent.

President Obama’s approval rating was 50 percent, close to his record low of 48 percent recorded in September 2011. 

The poll is based on a telephone survey of 1,154 registered voters from June 12 to 17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The ranking by GOP voters of potential primary candidates was based on a survey of 283 Republican voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 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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