In a tight race, Debicella takes his campaign retail

Amid the sounds of automatic doors and clattering grocery carts, a familiar refrain: “Hi there, I’m Dan Debicella. I’m running for Congress.”

Side by side with Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, the Republican candidate for Congress in Connecticut’s 4th District spent a bit of Wednesday night shaking hands outside of the Norwalk Stop & Shop.

And fresh off a glowing endorsement from the Connecticut Post, Debicella was energetic and clear about his intentions that evening. “I’ve been spending, campaign wise, much more time down here, because it’s where people don’t know me yet,” he said.

Debicella was born in Bridgeport and grew up in Shelton, where he has twice been elected to the state Senate. People know him there, he said.

“But Norwalk is actually one of the key towns of this district,” he admitted, taking a quick break from hellos and introductions. “And you know, as towns like Norwalk go, so will the election.”

Debicella is running a close race with incumbent Democrat Jim Himes, with less than two weeks left to go. Two weeks ago, a poll showed the two in a virtual dead heat; Debicella’s campaign says a more recent internal poll gives the challenger with a slight lead. Both camps are ramping up campaign activities, and the opponents will debate four more times before the election Nov. 2.

Before Debicella arrived Wednesday night, a crew of his campaign aides stood around the parking lot with Moccia, holding brightly colored “Debicella for Congress” signs.

And as he approached, an observation from the mayor:  “Only 6 minutes late. Not bad for a candidate.”

And then, to Debicella, “What, no tie?” Moccia pointed to his own, a bright red number. The two exchanged laughs and a familiar handshake.

“I’ve known Dan for 15 years,” said Moccia, explaining his show of support. “He helped work on some of my campaigns and was really active in his younger days as a volunteer,” he said.

“I saw him grow as a person, and in his commitment to his state and his district. He has a lot to offer in his ideas. He’s a moderate and that reflects our district.”

Moccia thinks Debicella has run a great campaign, and that voters like him. “I think he’s going to do very well in Norwalk. He’s got a lot of people working hard for him in this community.”

The two did their best to introduce themselves to every person leaving the grocery store. Some shoppers were willing to stop for a moment, offering a genuine smile or word of support. One couple asked for a lawn sign.

Norwalk resident Anne Nyquist was happy to express her support.

“I didn’t vote for Himes in the last election, and I’d rather see this guy come in. I’m an unaffiliated voter, but I kind of try to look at each candidate and weigh the issues. And I decided on Debicella this time.”

Others weren’t so enthusiastic. That nebulous concept, voter dissatisfaction, was palpable at times during the campaign stop. One man, upon seeing the candidate, averted his eyes, exclaiming, “Politicians! Give me a break.”

Debicella handled it gracefully. “Yeah, it’s that time of year again,” he said, smiling.

The detractor was unmoved, grumbling as he walked away. “Just a bunch of crooks,” he muttered.

Moccia turned out to be the perfect collaborator: at least seven people within the hour recognized him and called him by name.

“The mayor’s supporting you?” asked one. “If he’s supporting you, I’m for you.”

Some had local issues on the mind, and wanted the Moccia’s ear. One woman talked with him about installing a stop sign at a dangerous intersection. Debicella stood patiently by, listening in on the conversation.

Campaign aides handed out flyers to anyone willing to take them. On the flyer were listed Debicella’s three main campaign points: smaller government, lower taxes and job creation. But he wasn’t in Norwalk to talk policy – supermarket patrons didn’t seem too keen to discuss the finer points of the stimulus bill while holding paper bags full of food. He was there to shake hands and connect with voters.

Standing among the racks of pumpkins and fall produce just outside the store exit, Debicella seemed content to introduce himself to potential constituents and leave it at that.

“For someone like me, who’s a challenger and really needs to get their name out there, it’s a great place to meet people.”