HARTFORD -- A surging Linda McMahon overcame a sluggish start Friday night in the home congressional district of rival Christopher Shays to seize the Republican endorsement for this year's U.S. Senate nomination a second time in two years.
The professional wrestling mogul improved on her margin of victory from 2010, winning 60 percent of the delegates on the first and only ballot at the Connecticut Convention Center to establish herself as the favorite to take on Democrat Chris Murphy in November.
"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," McMahon, 63, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment told reporters once her victory became inevitable.
The combination of McMahon's well-oiled political machine and longstanding commitments proved too tall a task for Shays, who vowed to forge ahead with a primary contest scheduled for Aug. 14 before the voting was even complete.
Shays garnered 32 percent of the vote in a five-way race, easily meeting the 15 percent threshold to force a primary.
McMahon needs no introduction to the voters of Connecticut, who were fed her narrative as a proven job creator and American success story two years ago when she won a three-way Republican primary.
"You know, what I found out was people didn't really get to know me the last campaign," McMahon said, her husband, Vince, and son-in-law, Paul Levesque, better known as the wrestler Triple H, posing for photos with star-struck delegates, including one who mistakenly referred to the massive presence as "Triple X."
Dogged by questions about her electability after a 12-point loss to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in that race, McMahon still has doubters within her own party.
"All the money in the world can't win a candidate a race that has high unfavorables," said former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons of Stonington, a casualty of the 2010 campaign against McMahon and a Shays backer.
McMahon set a record for self-funded candidates in Connecticut two years ago, tapping her vast wrestling fortune to the tune of $50 million. This time, she is accepting individual contributions up to the maximum of $2,500 for the primary and $2,500 for the general election.
In 2010, she saturated the airwaves and mailboxes with campaign materials promoting her candidacy, an approach she has toned down in her reprise.
"Linda McMahon is one damn fine lady and a great person," Norwalk Mayor Dick Moccia said in one of multiple nominating speeches for the wrestling matriarch.
Whether McMahon can compel members of her own gender to coalesce around her in this campaign lingers as a major question for her, however.
She lost the female vote to Blumenthal 60 to 40 percent two years ago, with her opponents typecasting her as a cold-blooded CEO of a company that promotes violence and the degradation of women at the expense of wrestlers' health and safety.
"When she lets other people define her, that's when it becomes a problem," said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a McMahon superdelegate. "I think the best part of it is when she's just herself."
McMahon's campaign has placed a premium on courting women.
McMahon resumed her political ambitions last September when she declared for the seat of retiring incumbent Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent.
"Well, I'm going to be focusing on Chris Murphy," McMahon said when asked if she is turning her attention away from Shays.
McMahon characterized her convention victory as "round one," saying that Shays has a lot of similarities to Murphy.
Shays, 66, represented the 4th Congressional District for 21 years until he was swept out of office in 2008. His Waterloo was his home city of Bridgeport, where Greenwich Democrat Jim Himes road the coattails of Barack Obama to victory.
Shays took a hiatus from the Connecticut political scene after his defeat, moving to Maryland and serving as co-chairman of a government commission that probed wartime contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A former state representative for Stamford who grew up in Darien, Shays re-established residency in Bridgeport late last summer to run for Senate.