Democratic candidates for Congress are hoping that a strong showing by John Kerry (search) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (searchat the top of their election ticket in Connecticut this year will help them knock off strong GOP incumbents in the 2nd and 4th districts.

Buoyed by the plummeting popularity of embattled Gov. John G. Rowland (search) and Democrat John Kerry's solid lead over President Bush in polls of Connecticut voters, Democrats said this November may be their best opportunity in years to gain U.S. House seats in the state.

Incumbent GOP Reps. Christopher Shays (search) and Rob Simmons (searchdon't face challengers from within the Republican party.

Shays, who represents the 4th District in Fairfield County, is seeking a 10th term, was unanimously nominated Monday night in his district convention in Stamford. Simmons, who represents the 2nd District in eastern Connecticut, is seeking his third term, and his convention is Saturday.

Shays is facing a tough challenge from two-term Westport First Selectman Diane Farrell (search), who had more than $330,000 on hand at the end of the last quarter. Shays had about $365,000. Farrell got the Democratic nomination Monday night at the district convention in Norwalk.

"I feel very advantaged that I am running on the same ticket as Chris Dodd," Farrell said. "I think we have a better chance this year."

Two Democrats -- Jim Sullivan of Norwich (search) and Shaun McNally of Deep River (search-- are battling for the right to run against Simmons, a two-term Republican.

Sullivan received his party's nomination by a vote of 255-45 at the Democrats' 2nd District convention Monday in Montville.

But McNally, a former state representative, said he will wage a primary.

Sullivan, a former Norwich councilman, said he would prefer to have McNally's support.

"The simple fact is, a primary helps Rob Simmons," he said. "But I want to make it clear to all that if I have to fight a primary, I will win it."

McNally said he has 2,500 petition signatures at the ready to force his way onto the ballot. He has raised around $80,000.

"We had the signatures before I started tonight, and have always planned to primary," he said. "This is something we take very seriously. This is not a one-step process."

Robert Marconi (search), an assistant state attorney general, accepted the Democratic nomination to run for the Fifth District in a convetnion in Torrington.

Marconi, a Brookfield Democrat, thinks he has a good chance in the fall against U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (search), the incumbent Republican.

"The district has more Democratic than Republican voters," Marconi said in an interview Monday. "I believe (Democratic presidential candidate) John Kerry will carry the district. Why would someone vote for a member of Congress who would oppose their presidential candidate?"

Johnson, of New Britain, is expected to accept the nomination at a Republican convention May 22 in Waterbury.

Dodd, a popular incumbent who is seeking his fifth term, won his last election with 65 percent of the vote. He is being opposed this year by Darien businessman Jack Orchulli, a political newcomer.

Democrats at Dodd's nominating convention last Saturday said they hope to capitalize on GOP weaknesses in the state. In a recent poll, 70 percent said Rowland, who is embroiled in a federal corruption probe, should resign. And another recent poll showed that Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, has a 51-33 percent lead over Bush in Connecticut.

"This is going to be a great year with John Kerry on the ticket," said Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. "With Kerry and Dodd at the top of the ticket, I wouldn't be surprised if we pick up two, if not three, congressional seats."

Connecticut AFL-CIO president John Olsen added that he believes "there is a lot of anger against Bush here."

But Shays' campaign spokesman Michael Sohn said voters in the 4th District "vote for experience and effectiveness, not partisan politics."

He said Shays has been an independent voice, "not a partisan politician."

Peggy Deschenes, who is heading Simmons campaign, had no comment.

U.S. Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, were nominated in conventions in West Hartford and Middletown, respectively, The Middletown Press reported.