HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut Republicans gathered Friday night to endorse a candidate for the U.S. Senate, hoping to garner a seat they haven't won in 30 years.

Wealthy former wrestling executive Linda McMahon was expected to have a strong showing. She was the party's endorsed candidate in 2010 for Senate, but lost to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal after spending $50 million of her own money. But she faces a strong challenge for GOP backing from U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who's been touting a recent Quinnipiac Poll that showed he is a stronger candidate in the general election.

Besides McMahon and Shays, former Judge Advocate General attorney Brian K. Hill of Hartford, Fairfield attorney Peter Lumaj, and Southbury attorney Kie Westby are also seeking the GOP's nod.

But the match-up between McMahon and Shays loomed large over the convention. Shays' supporters tried to make the argument that Republicans shouldn't back McMahon again.

"Why would we throw away our chances to win by nominating someone other than Christopher Shays," asked Robert Poliner, a former state Republican Party chairman. "Why be so reckless with our votes? Connecticut citizens do not admire or vote for people who recklessly do anything, least of all throw away their own votes or their own money. We have a chance to make history."

McMahon supporters tried to make it clear that some of the issues that dogged her during the 2010 race — her unpopularity with many female voters and criticisms of WWE, formerly known as World Wrestling Entertainment — should not to be a problem this year. Four women participated in McMahon's nominating speeches, including the leader of the latest Women for Linda campaign. And one supporter, Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia, questioned why McMahon's business record should even be an issue. She's the former CEO of WWE.

"I always thought that self-initiative, hard work and free enterprise were part of the foundations that our party was built, and no one in this party should have to apologize for being successful," Moccia said.

State GOP chairman Jerry Labriola says the Republicans have "a golden opportunity" to send one of the GOP Senate candidates to Washington in November and he believes "one of those candidates will be our next U.S. senator."

Last weekend, the Democrats endorsed U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy from the 5th congressional district. Murphy still faces a primary challenge from former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz.

A total of 1,245 delegates gathered at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford for the state convention's evening session. The endorsed candidate needed to win a simple majority of the votes. But other candidates can win a spot on the Aug. 14 primary ballot with the support of at least 15 percent of the delegates. Shays has said he definitely plans to wage a primary challenge if McMahon wins the endorsement.

Candidates can also petition their way onto the ballot.

Convention organizers were trying to make this year's convention more open and transparent. The party created a website to allow the delegates and campaigns to track the delegate vote as it's happening and how each city and town delegation voted. They also brought in scanners and copiers to provide paper copies of the vote counts.

The effort comes after complaints were made about the 2010 GOP convention, when McMahon was chosen as the party-backed candidate for Senate, despite former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons being the expected favorite.

Simmons said Thursday that he likes the changes made to this year's state convention and said he has confidence in Labriola that it will be fair.

"We don't want to have a convention that is tainted by the possibility of inequity or unfairness," he said. "I think our party as a whole came away from the convention two years ago quite disappointed and I think we're committed to running a better convention this time."