BOSTON Connecticut's tough-on-crime attorney general looked set for an easy election to the Senate, retaining a vital Democratic seat, but a strong challenge from a wealthy one-time female wrestler has made it one of the most dramatic political races in the country.
Republican Linda McMahon, a former professional wrestler and half of the married couple that ran World Wrestling Entertainment, has steadily gained ground on Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the state's attorney general.
Buoyed by her personal campaign warchest, she now stands within 10 percentage points of Blumenthal, according to a Quinnipiac University poll published this week. In the spring that gap was as much as 25 points.
"The McMahon-Blumenthal Senate race in Connecticut could be a real smackdown as the Republican has the money and momentum," said Douglas Schwartz, poll director at Quinnipiac in Hamden, Connecticut, which plans to issue a new poll on Monday.
U.S. voters will chose 37 of the 100 Senate seats in the November 2 election and Democrats badly need to hold onto the Connecticut seat, being vacated by Christopher Dodd, to retain their overall Senate majority.
"We have a genuine horse race. I wouldn't want predict the outcome," said Gary Rose, professor of politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. "Her resources are off the chart. We've never seen anything like this in Connecticut. It's really a juggernaut."
McMahon has committed $50 million of her own money to the campaign, while Blumenthal so far has raised about $3.5 million. "Her resources have allowed her to hire a really very skilled team. Her ads have been quite compelling," Rose said.
If elected, McMahon, 61, would join a select group of American wrestlers-turned-politicians. But unlike Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the pro wrestler who was elected Minnesota's governor in 1999, McMahon has emphasized her credentials as a creator of jobs and a capable executive.
Analysts say campaign cash is being spent wisely by McMahon, who as well as her time in the ring was WWE's chief executive before stepping down in 2009 for her campaign.
McMahon has targeted independent and undecided voters, with a special push toward women and an emphasis on her status as an outsider to a political process many voters see as flawed.
The strategy seems to be working. Independents, the largest bloc of voters in Connecticut, went narrowly for McMahon over Blumenthal in the latest Quinnipiac poll, 46 percent to 44 percent. Blumenthal led 54 percent to 35 percent among independent voters three weeks ago, Schwartz said.
She may be better positioned as an outsider to tap into voter anger at politicians for the country's faltering economy and high unemployment.
The Cook Political Report ranks the race as competitive, but still leaning to the Democratic Party.
Rose said McMahon's commercials have effectively targeted middle- and upper middle-class women. Her current TV ads depict two well-dressed women driving in a black SUV and debating the merits of McMahon vs Blumenthal, noting she has not taken any money from special interest groups while Blumenthal went back on a vow not to accept such cash.
Wary of the anti-incumbent sentiment that is typical in an off-year election after a presidential victory, Democrats will be loathe to lose another U.S. Senate seat in New England.
Earlier this year Republican Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley, the Democratic Massachusetts attorney general, in a special election to serve the remainder of the U.S. Senate term of the late Edward Kennedy.
Brown, a former model, had trailed Coakley by as much as 30 percentage points, but ultimately his personable campaign struck a chord with voters looking for something new.
If McMahon is to repeat that feat, first she has to get past her party's primary election on Tuesday against former U.S. Representative Rob Simmons and economist Peter Schiff.
Simmons has regained some momentum after he all but ended his campaign after losing his party's official endorsement to McMahon in May. In late July, after letting his campaign staff go and halting fundraising efforts, Simmons returned with television ads reminding voters he is still around.
And analysts said McMahon's deep-pocketed candidacy is the type needed to take on Blumenthal, a household name in the state after almost two decades as an activist law-enforcer who consistently draws high approval ratings.
Blumenthal seems relatively unscathed after revelations in May that he sometimes embellished his military record -- claiming to have seen active service in the Vietnam War when his Marine Reserve unit never left the United States.
But analysts said McMahon could revisit that thorny issue once the primary is over and what is likely to be a no-holds-barred campaign gets under way in earnest.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny, editing by Mark Egan and Eric Beech)