By challenging Ned Lamont to an unprecedented series of 17 debates, Dan Malloy cast himself Wednesday as the de facto challenger in the Democratic primary for governor.

Malloy won the Democratic endorsement by a 2-1 margin at last week’s state convention, but Lamont has a higher profile from his 2006 run for U.S. Senate and is better-financed.

Without apology, Malloy is the aggressor in the early days of the primary campaign with Lamont, pressing for any advantage that can neutralize his challenger’s wealth.

“I’m absolutely the underdog in this race,” said Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford. “I claim it. He won’t dispute it.”

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Dan Malloy proposing 17 debates. (Mark Pazniokas)

A Quinnipiac poll released today reaffirms his underdog claim: not only does he trail Lamont by 17 percentage points, but he is largely unknown to 65 percent of voters.

Malloy, 54, who frequently boasts he never will be outworked in his second and final bid to be elected governor, took a rare respite from campaigning early this week, a concession to leaving the Democratic State Convention on Saturday barely able to speak.

He was back Wednesday, framing a debate about debates.

Mixing high-minded calls for civic engagement with digs at Lamont, Malloy proposed holding a debate in each of the 17 cities and towns in Connecticut that has a daily newspaper.

“My proposal is to have a different kind of campaign,” Malloy said.

Malloy said each of them clearly has the time, since neither has to raise money. As he reminded reporters, Malloy is the first statewide candidate to qualify for public financing under the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program, and Lamont is independently wealthy.

So, Malloy was asked, how is it new politics for a candidate with fewer resources to challenge a better-known, better-funded candidate to debates that will generate free exposure?

“It’s only new politics if he accepts,” Malloy said. “It’s only new politics, it’s only groundbreaking, if he says yes. That’s the difference, you see there’s no reason not to do this.”

Lamont’s campaign initially treated the invitation, which was shared with the press before Lamont, as posturing. They responded in kind.

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Ned Lamont campaigning Monday. (Mark Pazniokas)

“At least John McCain had the common courtesy to send a letter to the Obama campaign before he tried this exact same tactic in 2008,” said Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Lamont.

When Lamont called Malloy on Monday to congratulate him on the endorsement, the subject of the debates never came up.

“I’ve not personally called Ned, and I’ll tell you why,” Malloy said at his press conference. “If I had called him and he said no, then I’d be calling a press conference to criticize Ned for saying no.”

Still, the only immediate effect of his challenge was to set a decidedly old-style exchange of a barbs by campaign aides.

Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s media adviser, criticized Sessions’ reply.

“Is that a yes or a no?  Occhiogrosso asked.

Sessions said it is not exactly novel to see Malloy and Lamont on the same stage, a point she made while slipping in criticism of Malloy.

“Ned and Dan have appeared together more than 20 times already this year and they’ll do so again before the primary. But even after 20 joint appearances, we still haven’t heard Dan offer a single idea for how to create jobs.  If he wants to try a ‘different kind of campaign,’ that’s where he should start,” she said.

Occhiogrosso demurred.

“On the jobs stuff, under Dan’s leadership, Stamford grew almost 5,000 jobs while the state lost jobs,” Occhiogrosso said. “Dan’s been very specific about his record on this issue. Ned? Not so much. Can Ned tell us exactly how many jobs he’s created, and how many employees he has in Connecticut?”

Lamont, 56, who founded a cable-television company that serves college campuses, said after a campaign stop on Monday that he has about 40 employees.

Malloy suggested that he and Lamont could meet regularly in a modern version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In their 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas agreed to meet nine times, once in each of Illinois’ nine congressional districts.

They settled for seven, since each had given major speeches in the other two districts. Connecticut has five congressional districts. Malloy expressed flexibility on the number.

“What I’m calling for is a series of debates, use our time appropriately, engage in a discussion, test one another’s intellect, test one another’s concept of governance, test one another’s experience and the applicability of that experience to a state in crisis,” Malloy said.

Sesssions said Wednesday evening that Malloy didn’t get around to calling Lamont until six hours after his 11 a.m. press conference.

“Ned’s looking forward to talking about the issues facing Connecticut with him during a live, hour-long televised debate on NBC Connecticut the week of June 20,” she said.

It was unclear if they will have other meetings.

The endorsed Republican, Tom Foley, and his two challengers, Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele and Oz Griebel have issued no public statements since the weekend about debates or anything else.

Both parties hold primaries on Aug. 10.

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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