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GOP Crowd in Connecticut Could Get Unruly

There is little question that Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd is the most vulnerable Democratic Senator up for re-election in 2010. But a crowded GOP primary — and a messy intraparty fight — could prove problematic for Republican efforts to fully capitalize on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman’s weaknesses.

A wide range of Republicans are already running in the primary, plus a couple more candidates with significant financial resources are still considering bids.

While national Republicans appeared to coalesce behind former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) for the nomination earlier this year, the addition of more GOP candidates in the field has changed the dynamics of the race.

In addition to Simmons, former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley and state Sen. Sam Caligiuri have filed to run for the seat. What’s more, other well-funded candidates are seriously considering bids.

Privately, national Republicans say they are happy to see the primary divert attention away from Dodd because their biggest fear is that the embattled Democrat will decide not to run for re-election. For example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has not put out a press release attacking Dodd since April.

“Republicans are fortunate to have several well-qualified candidates in the race, and Republicans in Connecticut will ultimately choose their nominee,— NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said. “While Republicans are going to field a top-notch candidate, this race will be a referendum on Chris Dodd, his record, and the serious ethical questions that continue to surround him.—

Democrats, meanwhile, are rejoicing at the idea that Republicans could endure a negative campaign next summer before their chosen candidate faces Dodd in November 2010. Dodd’s campaign manager, Jay Howser, said he sees the GOP primary as a “big headache— for the GOP because “a number of candidates— in the race have the potential to win the nomination.

“Rob Simmons thought he would walk away with the primary. Now [he] has a big problem on his hands,— Howser said.

In fact, Republicans could have one of the wealthiest fields in the country in the Nutmeg State. In addition to Simmons, Foley and Caligiuri, businessman Peter Schiff (R) has filed exploratory paperwork with election officials and is expected to make an announcement soon about his plans. Although it is uncertain how serious Schiff is about a bid — his spokesman declined a request for an interview — his campaign has raised upward of $1 million so far on the Internet.

World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) is also considering a bid and is rumored to be willing to put more than $30 million of her own money into the race. McMahon’s spokesman, Ed Patru, declined to speculate on her self-funding potential and emphasized that she had not yet made a decision about the race.

“I will say that she does believe that Washington is out of control,— Patru said. “She does believe that Chris Dodd has lost his way. And she has a well-established history and record of creating jobs, managing a budget and giving back to the community — both locally and nationally.—

Meanwhile, Simmons denied in a phone interview that the primary will affect his campaign, which he said is still focusing on the incumbent. He acknowledged, however, that fundraising has been affected by the multicandidate primary. He pointed out the fundraising totals of his campaign, plus those of Foley’s and Caligiuri’s from last quarter total more than Dodd’s second-quarter haul.

“Sure, it would make it easier for me if other folks were not out there soliciting funds, but they are,— Simmons said. “And that’s the reality. And this campaign deals with reality. We simply have to do our thing and do it better than the others.—

But one Republican strategist, who has done extensive work in the state, called out Simmons for not being aggressive enough with his strategy.

“Simmons had a chance to put this away, but he’s been slow out of the gate — surprisingly slow out of the gate,— said the consultant.

Matt Wylie, a Republican consultant who does work in New England, said his money is still on Simmons — no matter who else is throwing cash into the race.

“At the end of the day, I think you’re going to see Rob Simmons win,— Wylie said.

The Bridgeport, Conn., resident said he has only received fundraising and other campaign materials from the Simmons campaign.

“Our nominee is going to beat Chris Dodd,— Wylie said. “Rob Simmons is going to be our best candidate to do it, but that’s up to the voters to decide.—

A recent public survey also showed Simmons in the best position to defeat Dodd. The poll by Research 2000 and sponsored by the liberal Web site Daily Kos showed Simmons as the only GOP candidate leading Dodd on the general election ballot, 46 percent to 42 percent.

What’s more, a hypothetical primary between the GOP candidates showed Simmons in the strongest position to win, but almost half of GOP primary voters were undecided. In the sample of 400 likely Republican primary voters, Simmons got 38 percent. His lead over the other Republicans is not shocking since he is likely the best-known candidate in the field and has represented the largest pool of voters.

But given that all GOP candidates in Connecticut must first campaign for their party’s endorsement at a May convention, there’s no guarantee what the final field will look like next August. Although the exact threshold has yet to be determined, the candidate with the most votes from the 1,600 local GOP town committee members will be the state party endorsed candidate. However, if a candidate receives at least 15 percent of the vote, he or she can request to be on the primary ballot in August. Simmons said in an interview that he will not force a primary if he does not receive the majority of voters at the convention.

“All the candidates are going to be spending a lot of time talking to convention delegates instead of talking to voters. It’s a diverting process,— said Larry Weitzner, a Republican consultant who has worked with many Republicans in the Nutmeg State.

This also means that GOP candidates are retail politicking all over the state and meeting with state party committee members and local elected officials before the convention in May — instead of raising money or talking to GOP primary voters.

Foley manager Gregg Keller said his candidate was “aggressively— traveling the state to meet with voters and Republican Town Committee members.

“Tom is traveling the state virtually every day, talking to RTC chairs and vice-chairs, mayors and first selectmen, and Republican voters more broadly as well,— Gregg said.

Caligiuri, who calls himself the “more conservative— of the candidates in the race, said this might be hard for political newcomers — no matter how wealthy.

“They simply don’t want to bother sitting at kitchen tables and doing the things they need to do to win the convention,— Caligiuri said.

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