NAUGATUCK, Conn. (AP) — Wealthy former professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon is shifting her image from groin-kicking CEO to grandmother in her second bid for Senate in Connecticut. The makeover seems to be working against three-term Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, putting McMahon suddenly in reach of an upset in the Democratic-leaning state.
"Voters like her more this time," said Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which on Aug. 28 showed McMahon narrowing her 20-percentage point loss among women two years ago to only a 4-point deficit among that group now.
But in a state where independents are the biggest voting bloc and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 37 percent to 21 percent, Murphy is fighting back for the seat held by retiring independent Sen. Joe Lieberman.
"We've got to tell people who the real Linda McMahon is," Murphy said in a recent interview. "We've got to remind people of all the reasons they voted against her in 2010."
Images from the race two years ago are hard to forget.
Much of the buzz then centered on raunchy wrestling video clips, particularly one of McMahon in the ring appearing to kick a man in the groin as part of a skit. Democrats hammered the former chief executive of WWE, formerly known as World Wrestling Entertainment, for "peddling violent, sexually explicit material that glorified the exploitation of women." The Democratic National Committee branded her with the name "crotch-kicker."
It was enough to sink McMahon even in a year that Republicans gained power on Capitol Hill. Her personal investment of $50 million into the race made the loss especially bitter. In the end, McMahon defied the conservative political wave and lost her race by 12 points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.
Recent history suggests little that would put a Republican, especially McMahon, ahead of a Democrat in Connecticut. President Barack Obama won the state by 23 percentage points in 2008. McMahon was trounced two years later, and Democrats assumed Lieberman's seat would safely be theirs this November.
Instead, the race to succeed him is suddenly up for grabs, according to recent polls. A Quinnipiac survey only last March showed Murphy with a 15-point lead.
The shift has made Connecticut an unexpected bright spot for Republicans as they struggle to gain the four seats the GOP needs to win the Senate majority.
Elsewhere, Republican Senate candidates are having a much rougher go. In New England alone, Republican Sen. Scott Brown has had trouble overcoming Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. And in Maine, where Senate Republican Olympia Snowe is retiring, GOP Secretary of State Charlie Summers is trailing independent two-time Gov. Angus King.
But in Connecticut, the motherly McMahon is surging. National Democrats have noticed; earlier this month, they pumped $320,000 into the state for attack ads to help Murphy revive his campaign. Now, they've added $299,756 more and spent about $900,000 so far, according to federal campaign filings.
McMahon, meanwhile, is doing more sharing these days.
In her television ads, the multi-millionaire chats about her humble roots, living in low-income housing when she was born, and discovering she was pregnant the day before she and her husband graduated from college — with no jobs or health insurance and rebounding from bankruptcy.
"We didn't have a lot of expensive things, but boy we had a lot of love," McMahon says in the commercial.
In another ad, McMahon, 63, talks about being a grandmother and frets about the future for "our grandchildren."
These days, McMahon touts herself as a successful businesswoman able to create jobs, while casting Murphy as a Washington insider and career politician. And she is quick to respond to potential problems: McMahon and Brown were among the first Republicans to distance themselves from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's controversial "47 percent" comments, in which he called Obama supporters victims who depend on government.
"I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care," McMahon said in a swiftly released statement.
The urgency of the situation isn't lost on Murphy, who's long been considered a rising star in his party.
Murphy, 39, got the attention of Democratic leaders six years ago when he toppled 24-year GOP Rep. Nancy Johnson. His campaign has struck back only recently with ads painting McMahon as a greedy wrestling mogul.
Murphy and his allies have had some success on that front. McMahon, who had filed for bankruptcy with her husband in 1976 with nearly $1 million in debts, announced recently she would repay her creditors, hoping to quell the attacks.
Schwartz noted that Murphy isn't as well-known statewide or as popular as Blumenthal, who served as the state's longtime attorney general before trouncing McMahon in 2010. That's given McMahon an opening to define Murphy before most voters get to know him by spending heavily and early on ads, Schwartz said.
McMahon enjoys a huge money advantage. She has lent or given nearly $16 million to her campaign. Murphy has raised less than $6 million.
She got an early jump, spending heavily on ads hammering Murphy for missing nearly 80 percent of the hearings held by two key congressional panels during the financial crisis. And she pounced on reports Murphy was sued in 2007 for defaulting on a home mortgage.
McMahon is reaching out to women voters to close the 20-point gender gap that doomed her 2010 campaign. She's held about 140 "Conversations With Linda" meetings with groups of 20 to 30 people, mostly women.
Another key finding of the Quinnipiac poll last month: McMahon is winning among independents, the state's largest voting bloc, by 15 points.
Bernie Grant of Naugatuck, retired from a pharmaceutical firm job, is the kind of independent McMahon needs. He voted for Blumenthal in 2010, but said he's likely voting for McMahon this fall.
"I'm more impressed with Linda this time around," he said, adding that her ads "made her softer and more acceptable."