Alex, I’ll take ‘deficits’ for $200

Picture the lightning round of “Jeopardy.” Substitute Gerry Brooks for Alex Trebek, invite eight contestants, and make sure every category and question involves Connecticut politics.

That was the look and feel of a brisk, 60-minute debate between eight Republican candidates for governor Thursday night that focused on jobs, the economy and the state’s fiscal crisis.

GOP gubernatorial debate, 3-18-10

Eight Republican gubernatorial candidates meet in their first televised debate

Curious about budget cuts? It was a night when everything was “on the table,” except specifics. No one liked “sacred cows,” and one candidate promised to “take the bull by the horns.”

But the debate, which was carried live on NBC Connecticut, gave the state’s voters their first extensive, televised look at candidates for governor. Six Democrats will debate today at 7 p.m.

The GOP lineup: businessman Tom Foley of Greenwich, Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele of Stamford, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, business leader Oz Griebel of Simsbury,  Newington Mayor Jeffrey Wright, Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh, former Congressman Larry DeNardis of Hamden and Christopher Duffy Acevedo of Branford.

The candidates offered viewers a political sampler, with each answer limited to 60 seconds. Except a question about the death penalty and the failure of urban policy, the focus was on fiscal and economic issues.

All eight candidates said they opposed abolishing the death penalty, even DeNardis, who hinted during his recent announcement for governor that he was reconsidering his support for capital punishment.

Seven candidates said they favored a suspension of binding arbitration, a process that officials have complained drives up the salaries and benefits for unionized public employees.

Binding arbitration was offered decades ago as a tradeoff for losing the right to strike. No one suggested once again giving state and municipal employees the right to strike.

Only Duffy Acevedo sprang to the defense of public employees, briefly giving the impression that he had wandered into the wrong debate.

“Being pro-union is not being anti-business,” he said. “Look at Greenwich and that storm. The unions got up in the middle of the night and made it happen.”

Boughton showed a playful side, weaving a factoid about Danbury into nearly every answer: crime, unemployment and taxes are low. He also delivered a shout out to storm-ravaged Fairfield County, where the bulk of Republican primary voters happen to live.

“We hope you get your power on soon,” Boughton said. “Danbury is ready to assist you.”

Foley, the only candidate airing television ads and the newly christened frontrunner in a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier Thursday, borrowed lines from his own commercials: Hartford is broke and broken; the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

He said that $1 billion could be trimmed from the $18.6 billion budget, which still would leave him facing a deficit of nearly $3 billion next January if he is elected.

Marsh called for “systematic change” and said, “There are no sacred cows.”

Wright complained that the politicians in Hartford do not have the courage to make cuts that he and other elected municipal officials routinely make.

But he and his colleagues did not take up an invitation from one questioner, Chris Powell of the Journal Inquirer, to explain just how to squeeze $1 billion from the budget.

Wright he would cut “all possible areas.”

“In my opinion, there is not a sacred cow in the process,” he said.

“Everything is on the table,” DeNardis said.

Griebel and Bought each said a “culture change” was necessary in state government, and Griebel said that candidates had to be honest with voters.

The fiscal crisis cannot be solved in a year or two, he said.

Asked about United Technologies Corp.’s recent complaint that anyplace but Connecticut offers a cheaper place to do business, the candidates agreed with the state’s largest private employer.

“It’s critical that the governor be the chief economic development officer,” said Griebel, who is on leave as head of the Hartford region’s largest business group, the Metro Hartford Alliance.

“UTC is absolutely right,” Fedele said.

“What has happened here in Connecticut is absolutely inexcusable,” Foley said.

“I would not have let UTC leave, not without a fight,” Duffy Acevedo said.

UTC remains headquartered in Hartford, with major subsidiaries also based in Connecticut, though it has sent thousands of manufacturing jobs out of state.

Wright sent everyone home with a smile — or groan. During his closing statement, he smiled and said, “My name is Jeff Wright, and I am right for the state of Connecticut.”