Published September 12. 2012 4:00AM
Hartford - It wasn't supposed to be this hard for Congressman Chris Murphy.
Six months ago, the U.S. Senate candidate enjoyed a 15-point poll advantage on Republican Linda McMahon in an early match-up. He could look forward to being the Democratic nominee in a deep-blue state joining President Obama near the top of the ticket.
But McMahon is making shrewd use of her wrestling fortune resources in this 2012 campaign, gently reintroducing herself to voters and gradually dissolving Murphy's early lead.
The Greenwich millionaire transformed her March deficit into a three-point lead over Murphy last month in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. She managed to reduce her once-high unfavorable ratings to 35 percent.
Day-to-day, McMahon is keeping Murphy on the defensive with repeated assertions about his congressional hearing attendance record, missed payments on his home mortgage, and other claims.
With less than two months before Nov. 6, some Murphy supporters are getting nervous about whether he can handle the WWE mogul's offensive surge.
"It's time for him to get on the move here," former Republican governor and U.S. senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Old Lyme said this week. "I think Chris Murphy's been giving her a free pass and I don't think that's very smart."
"I'm nervous for him," said Raymond Trebisacci, chairman of Stonington's Democratic Town Committee. "As far as it goes down here in this corner of the state, she's getting better recognition."
Politics professor Gary Rose of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, a neutral observer of the race, said McMahon is running a strategic campaign that has "put him on the ropes."
If Murphy hopes to avoid defeat, he must get out of the corner and start swinging.
"He just can't be in a position of constantly rebutting charges," Rose said. "He needs to go on the offense more and tell people why he should be elected. That's what the voters aren't seeing."
McMahon is capitalizing on the number of voters outside Murphy's 5th Congressional District who aren't familiar with the congressman and his legislative record in Washington and in the state's General Assembly.
Even before the Aug. 14 primary, McMahon aired television ads aimed at defining Murphy as an absentee lawmaker who lacked a "jobs plan" like hers. Murphy responded with an ad noting his 97 percent voting record.
"Chris Murphy is not the household name that Richard Blumenthal was. He's a blank slate for many voters, so her ads could be more effective against him," Douglas Schwartz, Quinnipiac University poll director said.
"Another factor in this race is that Murphy is hoping to be helped by President Obama's coattails," Schwartz added. "But right now, the coattails are short - Obama is only ahead of Romney by seven points."
Most recently, McMahon's campaign has been using media outlets to draw attention to Murphy's rocky period of missed mortgage payments and a 2007 foreclosure threat on his home in Cheshire. The campaign alleges that Murphy received a sweetheart deal from Webster Bank on a 2008 home equity line of credit, a claim Murphy and the bank emphatically deny.
Weicker said he believes Murphy could do a better job introducing himself across the state and telling voters "what he is for." This task doesn't necessarily require expensive TV ads, Weicker said, perhaps more rallies, meet-and-greets and shoe-leather campaigning.
"I know what he's for because I've talked to him, but I'm one person," Weicker said. "He's got to get out there and cover the state."
Jonathan Harris, executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said the state party is offering canvassing volunteers and everything else that it can to assist Murphy.
"Chris Murphy's campaign is not on the defensive, it's just not as visible because he doesn't have $65 million in his pocket," he said.
That's about how much McMahon has spent of her family's personal fortune on this and her 2010 race, which she ultimately lost to Blumenthal by 12 points.
Insiders say her campaign has outspent Murphy's nearly 8 to 1 over the course of this spring and summer.
According to Harris, party leaders aren't worried that Murphy might lose, rather "the concern is what every citizen should have - that someone is again trying to use their big wallet to purchase a Senate seat. It's legal, but I don't think that's a good thing for democracy."
News reports out of last week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., had Murphy urgently soliciting help and advice from party insiders. The New Haven Independent quoted former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd as telling state delegates, "We in Connecticut need to make sure that that seat - the seat my father held - remains in good hands."
A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Tuesday that the organization is paying close attention to Connecticut. "We're pledged to make sure that Chris Murphy has the resources to win," spokesman Matt Canter said.
Also Tuesday, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced that McMahon has qualified for a second line on the ballot as a candidate of the Independent Party. Murphy also will have two lines: Democrat and Connecticut Working Families Party.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, said he believes Murphy can still pull it off in November.
"Look at his history as a candidate - in 2006 he was the darkest of dark horses and he unseated [Republican Congresswoman] Nancy Johnson," Courtney said. "He's somebody who knew from Day 1 that this would be a challenging race, and his track record shows he can power through."
McMahon campaign spokesman Todd Abrajano attributed his candidate's rise in the polls to more voters getting to know her as a person.
"It's important for them to see themselves in the candidate," he said. "Linda spent an entire career trying to build a successful business and build a successful family, and a lot of women in the state are working to do the same things."
"With respect to who's driving the narrative, we're running a professional campaign and we are going to continue to talk about not just why Linda is the better candidate, but we are going to point out deficiencies that Congressman Murphy has in this race," Abrajano said.
"If Congressman Murphy didn't have the deficiencies that he does as a candidate, we wouldn't have the opportunity to talk about them."
In a phone interview Tuesday, Murphy disagreed with the notion that McMahon is setting the pace of this race.
"Linda McMahon doesn't want to talk about her record as CEO and she doesn't want to talk about her weak grasp of the issues, so she's left to lob personal assaults and vicious attacks against me," Murphy said. "People are not going to forget the Linda McMahon that they rejected two years. All of the reasons why people turned away from Linda McMahon in 2010 are still front and center in 2012."
Murphy confirmed that the first TV ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is set to air today.