The last days before an election traditionally are a final opportunity for candidates to define themselves for the voters.

But if Wednesday’s debate between the Republican gubernatorial contenders was any indication, Tom Foley and Michael Fedele are as focused on attacking each other as they are pumping up their own respective image.

And the third GOP candidate, Oz Griebel, made it clear during the televised forum at the Rocky Hill studios of WFSB, Channel 3 that he’s tired of a sniping war that is jeopardizing the party’s overall chances of holding onto the governor’s office this November.

fedele, foley and griebel 8-4-10

GOP gubernatorial candidates, from left, Michael Fedele, Tom Foley and Oz Griebel review their notes before Wednesday’s debate at the Rocky Hill studios of WFSB, Channel 3 (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“The attack ads that Mike and Tom have launched against one another have become the Democrats’ playbook,” Griebel, who is on leave from his post as president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance, said. “I urge you to vote for the one Republican leader whose relationships, intellectual horsepower — and lack of political baggage — will produce a victory.”

Foley, a Greenwich businessman, and Fedele, a former state representative from Stamford and lieutenant governor under Gov. M. Jodi Rell since 2007, each insisted the other began a series of attack ads that have been airing on television and radio over the past few weeks.

“The ads are absolutely false,” Foley said, accusing the Fedele campaign of unethically staging a commercial that criticizes Foley for making $20 million as his Georgia textile manufacturer, the Bibb Company, slid into bankruptcy in the 1980s. Foley insisted cutbacks he ordered saved the Bibb plant, and that it closed years later under different ownership.

“These are factual things,” Fedele said. “These are real live people who lost jobs. … Let’s not get confused with false negatives and actual negatives.”

Foley then charged that friends in Georgia informed him that the “Bibb employees” presented in the ad had never worked for the manufacturer. Foley also charged these false workers “were treated to a sumptuous lunch, I understand, and handed scripts” telling them what to say.

The Foley campaign could not provide any of these scripts.

Fedele did not address the charge during the debate. But when questioned afterward he insisted the ad did feature former plant workers and when asked about the possibility of scripts being provided, Fedele said “not that I’m aware of.”

A charge Fedele did address during the debate was Foley’s accusation that the lieutenant governor “actively and enthusiastically supported one of the largest tax increases in Connecticut history,” referring to $952 million in new tax and fee hikes enacted last September.

“You should know who proposes the budget, you should know who vetoes the budget,” Fedele told Foley. “It’s the governor, not the lieutenant governor.”

“I think it’s going to be hard for him to say he’s going to take the state in a different direction,” Foley said, accusing Fedele of “standing by while the size and cost of state government has grown.”

Griebel, who at one point during the debate charged both of his rivals with failing to address a moderator’s question to identify three specific options for reducing state spending, vented his frustrations afterward.

“It’s like two children in a sand box throwing mud at each other,” he said. “Someone has to be the adult in the room.”

Griebel, who has been trailing both Foley and Fedele in recent Quinnipiac University polls, wasn’t entirely immune from launching a few verbal jabs.

While Griebel has touted his work with the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance, saying his nearly two decades’ worth of experience working with state and municipal leaders, business executives and civic groups will help him promote job growth as governor, Foley questioned whether the Simsbury Republican was “part of the Hartford tax-and-spend culture.”

Griebel took aim at Foley’s resume, which includes a stint as U.S. ambassador to Ireland and an assignment overseeing private-sector development in Iraq working for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

“I’ve spent 17 years building relationships in Connecticut,” he said. “They haven’t been in Ireland, Iraq or South Carolina. … And those relationships are going to be critical.”

Griebel also argued Fedele talks with pride about the Rell administration’s accomplishments “but at the same time argues he has not been part of the budget discussions.” According to nonpartisan legislative analysts, Rell’s successor is expected to inherit a $3.37 billion deficit built into the state budget that begins on July 1, 2011.

Connecticut needs “a clean break from the Rell-Fedele administration,” Griebel added.

Despite the friction, there were points during Wednesday’s debate when all three Republicans found common ground.

Each agreed Rell should have vetoed the 2009-10 budget and the tax and fee increases that came with it. They also found consensus on the need to invest more in tourism promotion, and on wariness about tax credits tailored to attract one specific type of industry.

But while all three candidates also hammered away at the need to cut state government spending, Griebel charged his competitors’ answers were lacking substance.

After Fedele talked about freezing borrowing — a move that could shave tens of millions of dollars in debt service payments at best off a nearly $3.4 billion deficit, Foley said talked in general terms of cutting state health care costs, and reducing the numbers of non-violent offenders rehabilitated in prisons. The last state prison closure, ordered last year in Cheshire, saved just under $3.5 million.

“I don’t know whether the question has actually been answered,” complained Griebel, who said he would seek to stop further contributions into the state employee pension fund. A recent report prepared for a state panel studying retirement benefit costs estimated Connecticut contribution to the pension fund would top $1 billion next year.

Griebel has pledged, if elected, to try to negotiate with stater employee unions the replacement of the pension system with a defined contribution program similar to the 401 (k) funds commonly found in the private sector.

“Let’s all make sure we’re talking about the right numbers: $3.4 billion, not million,” Griebel said, “Three or four things that maybe amount to $100 million isn’t to me what the question is about.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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