- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 4, 2010

HARTFORD, Conn. | When Republican Rob Simmons is asked why, after suspending his Connecticut Senate campaign for three months, he’s now a better candidate for the GOP than a former wrestling executive willing to spend tens of millions, Mr. Simmons pulls out his set of military ribbons.

A retired Army colonel with more than 37 years of active and reserve service, Mr. Simmons proudly states that his military record more than stacks up against that of the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who came under fire in May for misstatements he made about his service.

“I think I have a better chance and I have a qualification to beat him that she doesn’t have,” Mr. Simmons said, referring to Mr. Blumenthal and former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, the endorsed Republican candidate.

“It’s this ribbon, and this ribbon, and this ribbon,” he said, pointing to each one.

Mr. Simmons unofficially - and surprisingly - jumped back into the Republican primary race on July 21 when he spent more than a third of his remaining campaign cash on a TV ad reminding voters he’s still on next Tuesday’s primary ballot even though he released his staff and stopped raising money. The former congressman called it a “public service announcement.”

Since then, Mr. Simmons has acknowledged he’s really back in the race. He’s enlisted his wife, daughter and close friends to help out, appeared in two debates, started running a second TV ad, and won the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper and several newspapers that cover his old U.S. House district.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released Wednesday shows that he has gained some ground on Mrs. McMahon, who has said she will spend as much as $50 million of her own money on the race. She now holds a 17 percentage point lead over Mr. Simmons, down from a 27-point lead on July 16 among likely GOP voters.

Thirty-eight percent of those who chose a candidate said they might change their minds by Tuesday. Eight percent are undecided.

“She’s clearly in the strong position. A 17-point lead is a big lead and tough to overcome, but you never know in politics, anything is possible,” poll director Douglas Schwartz said. “There’s still plenty of room for movement.”

Mrs. McMahon has essentially ignored Mr. Simmons‘ re-entry, saying she’s focused on defeating Mr. Blumenthal in November. Wednesday’s poll also showed she has cut Mr. Blumenthal’s lead over her in a potential November matchup to 10 percentage points. Her campaign spokesman, meanwhile, has dismissed Simmons as “an erratic semi-candidate.”

Besides Mr. Simmons, Mrs. McMahon faces Peter Schiff, a financial expert from Weston, in the primary.

Mr. Schiff, who garnered the support of 14 percent of likely GOP voters in the latest poll, is running a TV ad that shows footage of Mrs. McMahon pretending to kick a man in the groin during a wrestling program. The ad suggests she has kicked Republicans for years by contributing to national Democrats, attending the Democratic National Convention and supporting government bailouts.

National Republicans have not publicly reacted to Mr. Simmons‘ re-entry, but Democrats have used Mr. Simmons‘ re-emergence to highlight what they claim is buyer’s remorse among Republicans who endorsed Mrs. McMahon at the state convention in May.

“Add Rob Simmons to the list of conservatives who believe Linda McMahon’s record of making millions of dollars while denying health insurance to wrestlers, peddling violence to kids and hiding widespread steroid abuse makes her a dangerous choice for the people of Connecticut,” said Deirdre Murphy, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s national press secretary.

Meanwhile, Mrs. McMahon is keeping her promise to focus on Mr. Blumenthal. Her campaign, which touted helping the New York Times with an article about how Mr. Blumenthal said several times that he served “in” Vietnam when he actually served stateside in the Marine Reserve, recently sent a mailer to voters accusing Mr. Blumenthal of lying for political gain.

Mr. Blumenthal repeatedly has apologized, saying he misspoke and did not try to mislead anyone into thinking he served in Vietnam.

Former state Republican Party chairman Robert Poliner said Mr. Simmons is the better candidate for the GOP, especially given his military record. He also said Mrs. McMahon’s association with the wrestling business is “not going to be an easy sell to the general population” because of its violent images and the way it portrays women.

“Then comes along Rob Simmons who doesn’t have these skeletons sitting in his closet and who has a distinguished record of service, of public service,” said Mr. Poliner, who lives in Mr. Simmons‘ old congressional district.

But Patricia Longo, one of the state’s two representatives to the Republican National Committee, said she doubts Mr. Simmons can defeat Mrs. McMahon. While he’s popular on the eastern side of the state, Mrs. McMahon enjoys strong support from Republican-rich southwestern Connecticut, where she lives and where WWE’s headquarters is located, she said.

Those voters don’t seem to be bothered by any controversy surrounding the wrestling empire. They look at Mrs. McMahon as a successful businesswoman, Miss Longo said.

“Do you know how many wrestling fans we have in Connecticut? It’s a legitimate entertainment source and people watch it,” Miss Longo said. “Look at what she’s accomplished. It’s astounding.”