The front runner in the latest public Democratic gubernatorial primary poll, Ned Lamont, is refusing to participate in a live televised debate two weeks before the Aug. 10 primary, prompting withering criticism from his Democratic rival, Dan Malloy.

“If this is an indication that Ned is going to refuse to meet me in any televised debate between now and the primary, I think it’s an unprecedented situation,” Malloy said.  “No statewide debate in the closing weeks of a campaign this important?  What a shame.”

Lamont, who has had only one head-to-head debate with Malloy since they qualified for the primary at the Democratic State Convention in May, informed the debate’s sponsors Tuesday he would not participate at the forum that was to be held July 27 at The Garde Arts Center in New London.

Lamont NBC30

One is enough for Ned Lamont.

“Ned wants to spend the last few weeks leading up to the primary talking directly with Connecticut families,” said his spokeswoman, Justine Sessions.

The Garde seats 1,500.

The debate was to be co-sponsored by The Day of New London and by WTNH-TV8 of New Haven, Connecticut’s ABC network affiliate. The forum was scheduled to broadcast at 7 p.m. on WTNH’s sister station, WCTX-MyTV9.

Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day, announced Lamont’s decision in a statement quoted in an article posted Tuesday on the newspaper’s web site.

“To say we are disappointed with Mr. Lamont’s decision to avoid a live televised debate before an audience of 1,500 primary voters in New London would be an understatement,” Farrugia said.

The article adds that Farrugia made a “personal appeal” asking Lamont to participate in the debate, but that the Lamont campaign said it had already participated in debates and forums with Malloy and would focus on other campaign events in late July.

Lamont is the only candidate to refuse the paper’s invitation. All three Republicans have accepted an invitation to a separate debate the next evening.

Roy Occhiogrosso, a Malloy media adviser, said the campaigns participated in a walk-through at the arts center on June 24 without Lamont’s representative giving any indication he might refuse. The campaigns reviewed ground rules, including the order in which candidates would speak. Tickets were printed and made available to the campaigns Tuesday.

But Sessions said that Lamont never had committed to the July 27 debate. And she added late Tuesday night that he is unlikely to accept other invitations, focusing instead on direct voter contact.

Tonight, Lamont will participate in a phone-in teleconference with voters to discuss his education plans.

Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, and Lamont, a Greenwich businessman and the party’s 2006 nominee for U.S. Senate, have participated in several debates, but only one event was both televised and limited only to those two: a June 22 forum at the West Hartford studios of NBC 30.

“Please, let’s not buy the ‘I’ve debated Dan plenty of times, and I want to spend more time talking to voters’ line.  It’s ridiculous,” Malloy said. He questioned whether Lamont was smarting from their previous head-to-head match-up. “Well, we’re told he did a focus group during the debate — apparently it didn’t go very well.”

Sessions said the campaign did no focus group, but it did record interviews of voters about their reactions to the debate, using complimentary remarks about Lamont’s performance in a radio ad.

Both Lamont and Malloy are airing new television commercials today. Malloy’s is another biographical piece, stressing his middle-class roots.  Lamont’s is called “Special Interests” and continues to characterize Lamont as an independent voice in politics.

Sessions said the ad does not mention or criticize Malloy. Neither campaign has attacked the other in a television commercial.

Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo tried her best late Tuesday to remain neutral.

“I can understand both sides,” she said. “I’m sure Dan would like to have more debates and Ned probably wants to focus on getting out the vote.”

When asked whether she thought Democratic voters would want more debates or be satisfied with one, DiNardo replied, “I can’t comment on that.”

Malloy, who at one time proposed having 17 debates with Lamont, won the gubernatorial endorsement of the Democratic State Convention. But a May 27 poll by Quinnipiac University found Lamont leading Malloy 41 percent to 24 percent, with 30 percent of Democrats undecided.

The Day indicated it and WTNH are moving forward with a July 28 televised debate featuring the three Republican gubernatorial contenders: Tom Foley of Greenwich, Michael Fedele of Stamford and Oz Griebel of Simsbury.

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