With independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman retiring from the Senate after four terms, do Connecticut Republicans have a shot at the seat in 2012? Republicans Linda McMahon and Chris Shays think so.

McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, first ran for Senate in 2010 to replace retiring Democrat Chris Dodd. Despite dropping $50 million, outspending her opponent 5-to-1, McMahon lost by 12 points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. This time, she hopes, will be different.

“Once you have run, you’ve learned a lot,” says McMahon, who adds that her campaign is focusing on “building an incredible grassroots operation.”

Shays, her chief primary challenger this year, represented Connecticut’s Fourth Congressional District from 1987 until 2009. He says McMahon was simply a “bad candidate,” last time around, who spent too much money for not enough votes.

Shays, a self-described “moderate,” also says criticizes McMahon work with professional wrestling. “Folks in Connecticut are not likely to elect someone whose business is violence, bullying, degradation of minorities and women,” he says. “That kind of marks her.”

The Connecticut GOP’s state convention, when delegates will vote for candidates for Senate, is on May 18. If one candidate receives the majority of delegate support, he or she will receive the party’s official endorsement, and all remaining candidates will be considered “challengers.” If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the convention delegates, there will be no endorsed candidate.

Regardless of the convention results, voters will ultimately determine the Republican nominee who will face the Democrat in November in the state’s August 14 primary. Shays, considered the underdog, has the primary date printed on his business cards to remind Nutmeggers and reporters of the more important date on the primary calendar.

But an endorsement from the convention would provide an important boost for either candidate toward fundraising efforts.

McMahon is the favorite to win the Republican primary, since she currently has a money advantage as well as an edge with the convention delegates. A recent (McMahon-commissioned) poll shows McMahon ahead of Shays by 21 points with primary voters, with just 15 percent of those voters polled undecided.

Shays insists he’s in the race for the long haul, saying McMahon’s support among GOP movers and shakers is “broader than I would like and thin as paper.” In fact, a Quinnipiac poll conducted in mid-March showed Shays only 9 points behind McMahon, 42 percent to 51 percent. That same poll showed McMahon trailing likely Democratic nominee Chris Murphy by 15 points (52 percent to 37 percent) with Shays coming within a point of Murphy (41 percent to 40 percent). A significant part of Shays’s pitch to Republicans is his electability vis-à-vis the general election. But he recognizes the odds he’s up against. “If I win the primary, my view is that I will have exceeded expectations,” Shays says.

Still, McMahon hasn’t ignored that threat. Recently, she’s sought to link Shays’s record in Congress with that of Murphy, a liberal congressman. Dubbing the two “Chris and Chris,” the McMahon campaign has characterized both men as budget busters and big spenders, in contrast to her fiscal conservatism. “Both Congressmen Chris and Chris have spent their careers fighting for policies that have failed and left millions out of work across the nation, including nearly 150,000 here in Connecticut,” reads a post on McMahon’s campaign website. “Our nation’s debt is a staggering $15.6 trillion and the Congressmen’s solution? Just raise the debt limit and continue spending.”

Shays says he believes he’s to the right of McMahon on fiscal issues, noting that he supports a balanced budget amendment and prefers cutting spending and reforming entitlements to raising taxes. The perception, however, is that McMahon represents the conservative wing of the party.

Meanwhile, several Connecticut Republican donors and activists signed up quickly with McMahon after she announced her 2012 bid, hoping to avoid what was perceived as an damaging 2010 primary between McMahon and former congressman Rob Simmons, who had dropped out after the GOP convention but jumped back in before losing the primary.

And so far, McMahon has been meeting with voters in small settings, she says, in order that they can “get to know her” better. “Without fail, the response has been, ‘You’re so down to earth.’”

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