BRIDGEPORT – At a crowded gubernatorial forum today, Republican Tom Foley exempted the GOP from any responsibility for the state’s fiscal crisis, despite controlling the governor’s office for 16 years.

Foley, the Republican front-runner, was immediately ridiculed by Democrats, who asked why he was running for an office he saw as powerless compared to a Democratic legislature.

“Why don’t you run for the state House of Representatives?” asked Ned Lamont, a leader in the race for the Democratic nomination, prompting laughter from a business audience.

Two other Democrats, Dannel P. Malloy and Mary Glassman, directed their own jabs at Foley, a Greenwich businessman who was the U.S. ambassador to Ireland under President George W. Bush.

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GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry DeNardis, left, jokes with Democrats Mary Glassman, Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont at Wednesday’s forum in Bridgeport (Mark Pazniokas)

“I profoundly disagree with the ambassador,” said Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford. “This is indeed a bipartisan train wreck.”

“I think the governor’s office has amazing powers,” said Glassman, the first selectwoman of Simsbury and the Democrats’ nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006.

“It sounds like I touched a raw nerve here,” Foley said.

The exchange came as the unwieldy gubernatorial road show rolled into downtown Bridgeport, where 10 candidates sat elbow to elbow at a head table at the Holiday Inn.

At three minutes each, the opening statements took 30 minutes.

The forum was sponsored by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council and the Connecticut Post and was moderated by Ken Dixon of The Post.

Dixon, a reporter and columnist, introduced the assemblage by archly noting he cannot wait for next month’s Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, which inevitably will thin the field.

“Thank you for that heart-warming introduction,” Lamont said. “We appreciate it.”

The head table barely accommodated the crowd: Democrats Glassman, Lamont, Malloy and Rudy Marconi and Republicans Mark Boughton, Larry DeNardis, Michael Fedele, Foley, Oz Griebel and Christopher Duffy Acevedo.

Perched precariously at the end, Marconi turned to Boughton, the Republican on his right, and said, “No elbows.”

It could have been worse. Two candidates were missing: Democrat Juan Figueroa and Tom Marsh, who recently left the race for the GOP nomination to run as an Independent.

Everyone denounced the state of Connecticut’s finances and state government, but Foley ignited the sharpest exchange by disagreeing with Malloy’s claim that the fault was broad and bipartisan.

“This problem was created by a Democratic-dominated legislature that has overspent and underinvested,” Foley said.

His view invited criticism that he was implying M. Jodi Rell and John G. Rowland were bystanders as governor. The Democrats quickly obliged, as did Griebel in a statement emailed after the event.

“At this morning’s forum, Ambassador Foley continued placing blame on others,” Griebel said. “While we all agree that we can and must do better, we certainly aren’t going to solve anything by saying Hartford is broken and broke.”

Foley found fault with Rell later in the forum for failing to veto the last budget adopted by the Democratic legislature and for her willingness to balance the current budget with $1.3 billion in securitization, borrowing against an as-yet-to-be-named revenue stream.

“This is a big mistake for the governor to do this,” Foley said.

He also blamed her for not using her power to block further borrowing, which has given Connecticut the nation’s highest rate of indebtedness.

“If you don’t like the budget, then veto it,” Griebel said.

Rell allowed the budget to become law without her signature last fall.

Fedele, who is Rell’s lieutenant governor, offered no defense of his boss other than to say,  “This was done in conjunction with the legislature.”

Foley had company in laying the bulk of the blame at the feet of the Democratic legislative leadership.

Boughton, a former state representative who is mayor of Danbury, said the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore have absolute control over the legislative agenda.

“They are driving this bus,” Boughton said.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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