Republican contenders sell themselves

BRISTOL–Tom Foley took the advice between bites of his cheese danish.

“Negative campaigning is clearly working against the candidates,” Whit Bett, a local state legislative candidate, said from across the booth. “People won’t keep the radio station on when they hear it.”

“This is the best cheese danish I’ve had on the campaign trail,” Foley smiled back.

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Oz Griebel on the air (Keith M. Phaneuf)

While Foley met patrons Saturday at Crystal’s Luncheonette in Bristol, R. Nelson Griebel — known best by his nickname, “Oz” — sat in a Middletown radio studio confessing that he owes his given name to parents who appreciated one of 1950s most popular television families, and their pop star son, Ricky Nelson.

And walking through the shoreline village of Niantic in East Lyme, Michael Fedele brandished his pen to bolster his argument for why he would be the best choice for governor: He’d veto out-of-control budgets.

As Tuesday’s primary draws closer, the Republican gubernatorial contenders were spending the final weekend connecting with voters and supporters, making the case for themselves rather than against their opponents.

In recent weeks, both Fedele, a former state representative from Stamford and Connecticut’s lieutenant governor since 2007, and Foley, a Greenwich businessman, have spent much of their time and money attacking each other.  Accusations have centered on business failures, past arrests and who’s to blame for the huge, $3.4 billion deficit state government faces next year.

And Griebel vented his own frustrations following a televised debate last week, comparing his rivals to “two children in a sand box throwing mud at each other.”

But on the Saturday before the election, Fedele was less concerned with talking about his opponent and more with pledging to voters to veto any tax increase and privatize state services whenever it’s cost-effective.

“Our budget needs to go on diet,” he said, then grabbed a pen out of his pocket. “I will take out this pen, sign my name and say, ‘here’s your veto message,'” he said. “I am going to go line by line by line and ask if this is something we should be doing. If the answer is no, then we get rid of it.”

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Tom Foley chats with a supporter (Keith M. Phaneuf)

Betts, a Bristol Republican running in the 78th House District, hasn’t endorsed anyone yet, but said “I like what Tom is doing,” particularly his commitment to reduce the size of state government. “The people feel taxed to death and I think he understands that.”

Though Betts was careful not to lay the blame for negative campaigning on any particular candidate, he said the voters need to hear more of the candidates’ strategies to help Connecticut, and fewer critiques of the opposition.

As Foley and his wife, Leslie, moved through the diner in the heart of the blue-collar community, shaking hands and chatting with patrons, the Greenwich businessman fell back on what he believes is the strength of his candidacy.

“I have the kind of experience and skills to turn around a business, the kind of experience the state needs,” he said, then moved on to meet a new couple. “Hey, Tom Foley, running for governor.”

Fedele, who failed to win his party’s endorsement at the May nominating convention and remains behind Foley in the polls, said it was hard to compete with the money Foley pumped into his campaign for television advertisements before the convention. Fedele chose to accept public financing for his campaign, and Foley has outspent him by more than $1 million so far.

Several Republicans, including state party chairman Chris Healy, have denounced the state’s public campaign financing system. Foley even labeled Fedele “tax hike Mike” for spending $2.5 million taxpayer dollars on his campaign.

But Fedele tried Saturday to smooth over some of the Republican disapproval of the Citizens’ Election Program.

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Michael Fedele meets a voter (Jacqueline Rabe)

“Republicans can say one thing, but it comes down to it, they know the only way they can really compete, particularly when facing self-funders, is to participate in the program,” he said.

Griebel spent the first two hours of his Saturday sharing time with attorney general candidate Martha Dean of Avon on The Weekend Corner, a talk show broadcast on AM stations in Middletown and Old Saybrook.

“You have a great shot to become governor,” host Phil Mikan told Griebel, “particularly with the way your opponents are eating their young.”

When Mikan asked Griebel, who has spent the past 17 years promoting business growth as president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance, whether he considered himself a politician, Griebel smiled and replied, “I am now.”

And though the Simsbury Republican has grown publicly frustrated with his rivals over the past week, Saturday he was back to finding the “silver lining” in Connecticut’s fiscal cloud.

“We have a real opportunity to reform government spending,” he said, pledging not to freeze spending, if elected, in all four years of his first term. “This is the proverbial wake-up call, the cold shower.”

Griebel also repeated his pledge to carry one of the chief duties of his last job with him into the Capitol. “If the governor is not out there selling these state” to companies of all sizes, he added, “there are 49 other states with governors that are.”