Tom Foley and Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele frequently sparred Thursday night, ignoring the underfunded Oz Griebel during a televised debate of the Republican candidates for governor.

But Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell took the most punches as Foley blamed her administration for the fiscal crisis. And Fedele worked from the opening bell to distance himself from his boss.

“The lieutenant governor does not have an ability to propose a budget. The governor does. Does not have an ability to veto a budget. The governor does,” Fedele said.

It was a night when Fedele seemed grateful that Rell never got around to endorsing his candidacy, given how sharply she was faulted for job losses and failing to veto a Democratic budget last year.

“I don’t see how you can separate yourself from what the Rell administration has done,” Griebel told Fedele

If so, he wasn’t watching very closely.

“I did not agree with the administration in many cases,” Fedele said, adding that the governor should have taken a tougher stand against some of the fiscal “shell games” played at the Capitol.

Someone stumbling upon the debate on television would have been surprised to learn that Rell actually is reasonably popular, with an approval rating of 60 percent.

She is not seeking re-election after six years as governor, a job she inherited in 2004 from a predecessor of his way to prison. She was elected to a full term by a landslide in 2006.

On Thursday on the stage of the Garde Arts Center in New London, she was merely a lame duck who is expected to leave behind a deficit of more than $3 billion for her successor.

But she has remained on the sidelines in the run to the Aug. 10 GOP primary, expressing some affection for Fedele and Griebel, the president of a business group, the Metro Hartford Alliance.

Foley is the front runner for the GOP nomination. He is the first candidate for governor endorsed by the Republican State Convention without holding elective office.

A businessman whose stewardship of a Georgia textile company is harshly attacked in a Fedele ad, Foley holds out his lack of experience as a virtue in this political season.

“People are angry,” Foley said. “They are upset at our current office holders for getting us in the mess we’re in, and they don’t trust people who are currently serving in office to lead us out from where we are.”

Fedele, a successful businessman and former state representative, tried to make the case, albeit awkwardly, that a little political experience must be useful to the new governor.

“If you believe the next governor, because of the issues that this state faces needs to be and know the personalities and egos and the process in government, I’m the only candidate that has that,” Fedele said.

Foley said experience, while valued in other endeavor, was less important than boldness and courage.

“I will make the courageous decisions that need to be made to turn this state around,” Foley said. “I make a commitment to you tonight that I will reduce the size and cost of state government. I will close the budget deficit without raising your taxes.”

The boldness and courage to name actual cuts apparently will have to wait until after the election.

Foley and Fedele pledged no new taxes, a promise that fiscal analysts believe is impossible, as the size of the projected deficit approximates the entire state payroll.

Griebel said he would consider one source of new revenue: electronic tolls to maintain the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.

He said the election is about vision, ideas and execution.

“It’s about prioritizing those services that only the state can provide, but saying no to those we can’t afford and don’t have real value,” Griebel said.

Greibel, who has not raised sufficient funds to advertise on television in the closing weeks, was left out of the Fedele-Foley cross fire over the financing of their campaigns.

Foley, a Greenwich businessman who owns a 100-foot yacht, is relying on personal wealth and donations. Fedele has qualified for public financing of $2.5 million.

Fedele said Foley’s only objection to public financing that is he now has competition. Foley said that Fedele, who was videotaped driving his Ferrari to a charity event, is not exactly a pauper. A critic posted the video on You Tube.

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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