By Edith Honan
BRIDGEPORT, Ct. (Reuters) - Late last week, Rep. Chris Murphy, the Democratic contender for Senate in Connecticut, stopped in at El Flamboyan restaurant in Bridgeport.
This is one of poorest sections of the state's most populous city and home to the kind of Democratic Party loyalists Murphy needs in droves if he is to win on November 6.
With time running out before election day, he is locked in a close race with Republican Linda McMahon to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
McMahon, a nationally-known former wrestling executive, has emerged as a disciplined, aggressive opponent two years after losing a senate race in this Democratic state.
"Linda McMahon keeps running a race on character attacks, and I'm running a campaign about the issues," Murphy told a crowd of reporters and a few lunch guests at the Puerto Rican restaurant. "Ultimately, if the campaign is about issues, we'll do really well."
Murphy has been struggling. In a state where Democrats have a 16-point voter registration advantage over Republicans and where President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won by 23 percentage points in 2008, recent polls suggest the race is a dead heat.
A Siena College Research Institute poll released on Wednesday found Murphy edging out McMahon 46 to 44 percentage points, and other polls show a similarly close race.
For Democrats, who hope to hold onto their 51-47 advantage over Republicans in the 100-seat U.S. Senate, the tight race in a Democratic state is a nail-biter they could live without. Last month, The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee began running ads attacking McMahon.
Weeks of negative campaigning on both sides has taken a toll on the appeal of both candidates. The Siena poll found 45 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of Murphy, while 49 percent take an unfavorable view of McMahon.
McMahon poured some $50 million of her personal wealth into her unsuccessful campaign two years ago and has spent at least $27 million of her own money on this race.
Even Democrats say they have been impressed by how McMahon has improved as a candidate. Some express dismay at what they say was Murphy's failure to anticipate some of the attacks McMahon has leveled against him.
"One of the apparent failures in the Murphy campaign was the neglect of doing opposition research on himself," said Ronald Schurin, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a Democrat. As McMahon hurled attacks at him - for his poor attendance at congressional committee hearings, and for failing to make timely rent and mortgage payments years ago - Murphy has seemed "unprepared to respond quickly", Schurin said.
For Murphy, who entered the race with relatively low name recognition, the danger is voters are being introduced to him by McMahon's negative ads, rather than on his own terms. This is Murphy's first state-wide campaign and he hails from a congressional district that has among the least amount of media.
Democratic strategist Martin Dunleavy said Murphy's strong performance in debates, where Murphy has touted his support for increasing manufacturing jobs and criticized McMahon on issues like abortion and Medicare, has helped tilt the race's dynamic.
He says Murphy has tried to use his limited financial resources to send out his own positive message, as well as a defined negative message against McMahon.
"He knew he was going to get out-spent and made a conscious effort to guard his resources and never wanted to play on her playground," Dunleavy said.
"A FIGHTER AND A WINNER"
"There are huge differences between Linda McMahon and I," Murphy said at the Bridgeport stop. "She is a down-the line Republican when it comes to the issues that matter to families. She ultimately is going to be a vote to empower a very destructive Tea Party agenda in Congress that's not good for Connecticut."
"I've spent my entire life fighting for families, fighting for a fair tax code, fighting for support for cities," he said.
It's no secret the race is close, said Murphy: "Linda McMahon is trying to buy the election."
McMahon spokesman Todd Abrajano responded that voters are responding to McMahon's clear vision for the state and "independent-minded" campaign.
"This race is close because Chris Murphy has been a failed congressman for the last six years," he said.
Observers on both side of the aisle describe Murphy as a formidable campaigner.
Six years ago, he ran for the House in a mud-slinging race against Rep. Nancy Johnson, a 24-year incumbent and moderate Republican. He beat Johnson by 12 percentage points, ascending from the State Senate to the U.S. Congress.
Johnson remembers Murphy as a strong debater and tireless opponent. "He's a very good presenter," she said.
It remains to be seen if Murphy can capture the support of more than loyal Democrats and voters who dislike McMahon.
Up the street in Bridgeport, Tony Mendez, the 42-year-old owner of "One-Two-Three-Wireless," said that while he considers himself a Democrat and plans to vote for Obama, he will abstain from voting in the Senate race.
That is in part because he is tired of the negative campaign ads.
"I hate this jabbing at each other," he said. "I see them and change the channel."
(Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Andrew Hay)