ROCKY HILL — Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont backed away from the harshest aspects of their television commercials Tuesday in the opening minutes of their last gubernatorial debate.

Each declined to pronounce the other unfit for office on camera, but the rival Democrats resumed hostilities as soon as the taping stopped.

With a week to go until the primary, each camp is calling the race close. Voters will get a glimpse of how close with the release of a Quinnipiac Poll later this week.

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Democrats Ned Lamont, left, and Dan Malloy chat after their final gubernatorial debate at WFSB Tuesday (Mark Pazniokas)

Dennis House of WFSB, Channel 3, who moderated the debate with John Dankosky of WNPR, asked about negative ads in which Malloy highlighted a racial bias suit against Lamont’s business and Lamont focused on a corruption investigation of Malloy in which he was exonerated.

“If you actually believe these allegations, do you believe your opponent is unfit to be governor?” House asked.

“No, I do not think that Ned is unfit to be governor, nor have I ever accused him of being a racist,” Malloy said.

The same question was posed to Lamont.

“No, not at all,” Lamont replied.

The debate was broadcast at 3 p.m. on WFSB, Channel 3 and WNPR radio and repeated at 7 p.m. on WFSB’s digital channel, Eyewitness Now, and at 8 p.m. on CPTV and WNPR.

The same stations will broadcast a debate of the three Republican gubernatorial candidates at the same times Wednesday.

For 60 minutes, Malloy and Lamont repeatedly returned to the essence of their campaigns: For Malloy, the experience and record of 14 years as mayor of Stamford; for Lamont, a business background and a willingness to challenge the status quo in business and politics.

They greeted each other with a handshake while their wives and campaign staffs took their seats with reporters in the small studio.

The two men seemed to recoil at branding each other unfit, but they offered no regrets or apologies for the tone of their series of increasingly negative ads, beginning a week ago Friday with a piece aired by Malloy about Lamont’s business. Lamont hit back, Malloy countered with a tougher spot and Lamont’s response was the ad questioning Malloy’s ethics.

“I think it’s fair to point out that in the service of his company he downsized the work force by 70 percent, and a number of years ago there was a bias lawsuit filed against him,” Malloy said. “I think it’s a legitimate issue for people to be aware of, just as things that Ned is saying may be legitimate about me.”

Lamont has said he never has laid off an employee in his niche cable business, competing with large providers by building competing systems on 150 college campuses and in private, residential communities. The reductions came primarily as he sold off the residential systems, he said.

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A technician checks Ned Lamont’s microphone. (Mark Pazniokas)

During the debate, Lamont did not mention the claims in his ad against Malloy, nor did he directly address the bias lawsuit, which was filed by one employee in 2002 and settled a year later, its terms confidential.

“This is the real point: In public service, records are open,” Malloy said. “You can examine what someone has actually done and accomplished.”

After weeks of being taunted by Malloy for refusing televised debates in the closing weeks of the campaign, one in New London and, until recently, here at WFSB, Lamont made light of the debate about debates. Lamont’s campaign has repeatedly complained that their candidate had participated in dozens of debates and forums.

“Dan, it’s good to be with you here again, looking forward to yet another of our ongoing series debates,” he said, smiling at Malloy. Then he turned to the camera and said, . “Look, just let me say this flat up, I’d like a chance to make my case and to set the record straight.”

“Over the last 25 years, we’ve taken on the cable industry, beat them at their own game, building systems across the country,” Lamont said. “It s good work. It’s good pay. I’m proud to be with these people. And they’ve been with us for a long time, because it’s a good place to work. And that’s what I want to do for the state of Connecticut.”

Malloy did not let Lamont’s line about the debates go without a response. He lumped Lamont, who is largely self-financing his campaign with personal wealth, with Republicans Tom Foley and Linda McMahon, who are relying on their wealth in campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.

“The reality is for over a month Ned refused to meet me on TV, even after he had accepted an invitation in New London to do so,” Malloy said. “I’m very happy to be with you to answer questions.”

Lamont’s staff denies accepting the New London debate invitation.

“I don’t think we need a debate here on live TV about debates, and I don’t think we have to vilify anybody,” Lamont said. “We better have a governor with a temperament who knows how to bring people along, get them to the table and then make the choice, make a tough choice when it comes to a fair-minded budget and an honest budget.”

Neither candidate accepted an offer to precisely explain how they would close a $3.4 billion projected deficit without raising taxes or fees.

“That is the $3.5 billion question,” Lamont said.

Lamont outlined an approach, more than a solution, saying his campaign is seeking the best practices in government across the nation as a way to tame costs. If the state could get its Medicaid costs in line with the national average by providing support that could keep the elderly at home and out of expensive nursing homes, that could save hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

“I’ve been very frank when it comes to the next generation of state employees. We’re not going to be able to have it the way it is right now. We have to look at some of those benefits in health care,” he said.

“We’re not going to be able to nickel and dime around the edges when it comes to what we got to do,” Lamont said. “You take these best practices.”

He said he would asked his budget director to show him what a no-growth budget would look like and what a budget with cuts of five percent or more would look like.

“There, I’ll be able to make the tough calls and present an honest budget to you in February of 2011,” Lamont said.

Malloy repeated his promise to reduce the size of the politically appointed, non-classified work force by 15 percent, but he was deferential to organized labor, a constituency that can settle the outcome of a Democratic primary.

He said he would reach out to state employees for their ideas on savings.

“You’re the first people I want to talk to,” said Malloy, who is endorsed by most major state employee unions. “You’re the smartest people in the state of Connecticut. You know how to run government and make it more efficient. I want to be your partner. I’m prepared to be your partner. Please come and sit around the table.”

He proposed taking away state cars and consolidating state agencies, though not reducing jobs.

Lamont said that sounded like “nickel and diming.”

“Let’s cut back on the number of state cars? I appreciate that. Fifteeen percent of the political cronies, we get them out of the upper management level. How about 20 percent of those cronies?” Lamont said. “Look, I think you are going to have to fundamentally reform how you deliver services in this state.”

Lamont said he has the executive experience to hire the right people from inside and outside politics and government make those fundamental changes.

“There is no nickel and diming around,” Malloy responded. “You know, the difference between Ned and I is I’ve actually worked in government.  For 14 years I ran a half-billion dollar corporation called the city of Stamford. So many of the that things Ned is talking about, I’ve actually already done.”

In response to a question about whether the state income tax needs to be more progressive, the two had different approaches.

“I firmly believe that Connecticut’s taxes need to be more progressive,” Malloy said. “Our middle class is being squeezed.”

WIth an answer safer for a general-election than a Democratic primary, Lamont declined to commit to raising taxes on the wealthy.

“Everywhere I go people are mad as heck about taxes,” Lamont said. “They don’t want us to be sitting around talking about raising taxes on anybody right now. So I have to do a better job of convincing them that money going to Hartford is well spent.”

Both men said the reliance on the property tax for local schools is a major problem, but neither committed to raising other state revenue that would be necessary for property-tax relief.

After the debate, Malloy reiterated his criticism of Lamont for downsizing the workforce at his cable television company, Lamont Digital, by 70 percent.

“There is a fundamental difference between Ned Lamont and myself. He thinks Connecticut should be run like his business. I don’t,” Malloy said after the debate.

Malloy did not respond to the specifics of a Lamont ad that questioned his integrity, other than to quote a newspaper editorial that called it something that might have been aired by the “sleaziest of politicians.”

“He knows that. I think that’s the ledge he wanted to back off of,” Malloy said. “I think it’s been hurting his campaign right and left.”

In his post-debate press conference, Lamont cast himself as a political outsider, both for his cable business and his challenge of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in 2006.

“I’m not part of the old boy network,” Lamont said. “I’m somebody who has started a business and created jobs. Dan has a very different type of experience, so I think the people of Connecticut will say, ‘What is the number one problem confronting the state and who has the best experience to confront it?”

Lamont defended his reference to a culture of corruption in Stamford in two of his ads about Malloy, who was investigated and exonerated of wrongdoing in connection with using city contractors to work on his home. Malloy said the contractors bid on city jobs after working on his home.

The Lamont campaign also has pointed to Malloy’s solicitation of contractors for campaign contributions while he was mayor, calling it “pay to play.”

“The point is if I was governor of Connecticut, would I have a state contractor working on my home? No. Would I be collecting money from people doing business with my state? No,” Lamont said. “It’s not a question of legality for me, it’s a question of right and wrong.”

The ad remains on the air.

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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