* McMahon plays up her early financial struggles
* Race could be key to Democrats retaining Senate
* Quinnipiac poll shows Murphy leading among women
By Edith Honan
STAMFORD, Conn., Oct 26 (Reuters) - Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, seldom mentions World Wrestling Entertainment during campaign stops even though the business made her into a multimillionaire and something of a household name.
Instead, McMahon prefers to tell voters how she and her husband, Vince, climbed out of bankruptcy to start a company, or how she struggled to manage a career and a family.
It is a message tailored to middle-class voters and women, and marks a shift from two years ago when she spent $50 million of her own money only to lose to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in another Connecticut U.S. Senate race.
McMahon trailed Blumenthal by nearly 20 points among women in that campaign. So it comes as little surprise that this time around, wooing female voters has been central to her strategy and spending. So far, she has poured at least $27 million of her own money into the campaign.
Her opponent, Democratic U.S. Representative Chris Murphy, has tried to undercut her appeal to women in a race that Democrats find uncomfortably close as they seek to hold onto a 51-47 advantage in the 100-seat U.S. Senate.
McMahon, 64, and Murphy, 39, are vying to replace retiring Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is an independent but often aligns himself with Democrats.
Murphy has questioned McMahon's support for abortion rights, while painting her as too conservative for Connecticut's largely Democratic electorate and out of touch with middle-class voters.
And in a national election year in which Democrats have denounced what they call a Republican "war on women," Murphy has touted his support from the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood.
But he has taken a delicate approach to McMahon's 12-year stint as chief executive of WWE, an entertainment company that made stars out of The Rock and Hulk Hogan and has long featured a stable of scantily clad "Divas."
Murphy's ads do not include wrestling footage - as ads from both sides did two years ago. But in press releases he has referred to McMahon as someone "who made hundreds of millions of dollars demeaning women as a wrestling tycoon."
In one exchange during the first debate between the candidates, McMahon said: "It's a myth to think that I would be against women's health issues. I mean, Congressman Murphy, I am a woman."
'CONVERSATIONS WITH LINDA'
A Quinnipiac survey released this week suggests Murphy might be winning the argument. After weeks of polling neck-and-neck with McMahon, he was ahead 49 percent to 43 percent, and taking a double-digit lead among women.
McMahon's campaign pointed to two other polls that called the race a dead heat.
"Linda is going to continue talking with the people of Connecticut about jobs and the economy and how we can make things better," campaign manager Corry Bliss said in a statement.
Deborah Herbst, a retired teacher and a prominent Republican in Trumbull, was already a committed McMahon supporter when she agreed this spring to host the candidate at her home for tea with about 70 local women.
Over the course of the 90-minute gathering, Herbst, 60, said she remembers McMahon sharing personal stories including one about struggling financially as a young mother.
"It was really just like having a cup of coffee with a friend," said Herbst. "She knows what it's like to struggle."
Since her defeat in 2010, McMahon has attended about 150 of these "Conversations with Linda" around the state, and visited close to 250 small businesses, a campaign spokesman said.
At a campaign rally this week in Stamford, McMahon was joined on the stage by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who managed to win in another Democrat-controlled state.
"If you want someone who has experience with hard times as well, having the opportunity here in our country to come back from having lost everything to build a business and understand what it takes to do that, then vote for me," McMahon told the crowd.
The governor called Murphy a "loyal, strident partisan" and the "very type of divisive figure that we need to get out of Washington."
In a race largely defined by a barrage of negative ads and biting emails sent out by both sides, Christie decried the "nasty press releases and acidic press conferences" that he said were a feature of politics in Washington.
Whichever candidate prevails on Nov. 6, one legacy of the campaign will likely be that voters found it a turn-off. According to the Quinnipiac poll, more than six in 10 voters reported a "strongly unfavorable" or "somewhat unfavorable" opinion of the race. (Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Xavier Briand)
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.