Is the race for governor tightening, or just warming up?

Has the race for governor grown closer, or simply shifted into high gear?

While Republican Tom Foley was attributing his gains in Wednesday’s Quinnipiac University Poll to voter frustration with union and other special interest influence, Democrat Dan Malloy said the tighter contest is indicative of greater voter interest – and nothing more.

malloy reacts to poll 9-29-10

Dan Malloy: ‘I’m happy’ (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“I think it’s great,” Malloy said of the latest survey, which found his previous 9-point lead over Foley whittled down to 3. “It shows people are paying attention. Now everybody (in the media) has to start covering this race. That’s great for me.”

The former Stamford mayor, who openly relishes debates and has released nearly a dozen position papers on everything from education and health care, to economic development and energy, added he’s ready for the spotlight down the home stretch to Election Day.

“Guess what? I’m a closer,” said Malloy, who spoke with reporters following a forum on tourism at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. “All I know is I’m happy.”

Malloy, who led Foley 50-41 in a Quinnipiac survey of likely voters on Sept. 15, was ahead 45-42 in Wednesday’s poll. The margin of error matches Malloy’s new lead, making the race of statistical dead heat.

Foley, who has repeatedly questioned Malloy’s commitment to cut state spending given the strong support the former mayor has received from public-sector unions, said he believes voters–particularly independents–now are having the same reservations

“We’re seeing that unaffiliated voters are beginning to understand what the issues are,” Foley said before Wednesday’s forum at the convention center. “I’m grateful people are beginning to see my opponent is backed by the union leadership and the other insiders here in Hartford.”

Though Foley and Malloy evenly split the unaffiliated vote two weeks ago, independents favor Foley in the new poll, 44 percent to 38 percent.

The new poll also showed 65 percent of voters are either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with the current state government, which is facing a deficit equal to nearly one-fifth of current spending in the next fiscal year. And among the 18 percent who labeled themselves as “angry” Foley leads 60-29.

Foley reacts to  poll, 9-29-10

Tom Foley: ‘I’m grateful’ (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“Voters are now finding out Tom Foley has the answer for Connecticut’s challenges and Dan Malloy is just another worn-out politician,” Republican State Chairman Christopher Healy. “Connecticut voters, particularly independents are listening to Foley’s message on reducing the size of government without tax increases and are not buying Malloy’s absurd plan to cut state government by a third without layoffs.”

Foley has run ads attacking Malloy’s record as Stamford’s mayor while Malloy has countered with spots alleging his GOP rival’s business practices ruined a Georgia textile mill in the mid-1990s and cost thousands of workers their jobs.

But the poll found these attack ads failed to resonate with about half of the viewers. By a margin of 49 percent to 43 percent, Malloy’s ads were labeled more informative than annoying; for Foley, the margin was 45 percent to 46 percent.

Farmington Democrat Bill Curry, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 1994 and 2002, conceded that Malloy and Democrats in general face a tough challenge in a struggling economy, given their control of the White House and the legislature at both the federal and state levels

“In a year this tough, Democratic campaigns will have closer margins than they otherwise would in another year,” he said.

But Foley’s attack ads, though backed by considerable personal wealth, still don’t give voters a reason to support the Greenwich businessman on Election Day, Curry said. And though Malloy’s margin shrank from 9 percentage points to 3, Foley’s numbers barely rose, from 41 to 42 percent.

“The Republicans made a mistake: They chose people they believe would buy their way into office over people of experience and knowledge,” Curry said, adding that the gap in qualifications Foley must overcome to match Malloy “is so enormous, especially in the land of steady habits.”