The problem with political attack ads, Republican State Chairman Christopher Healy says, is that they are much easier to start than they are to halt.

And as GOP gubernatorial contenders geared up Tuesday for today’s final televised debate before the Aug. 10 primary, the candidates and their supporters said they hope the final days will see a returned focus on the issues–but they aren’t counting on it.

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Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, the frontrunner according to recent Quinnipiac University polls, and Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele of Stamford, have spent much of the past two weeks swapping ads over business failure, arrests, and who’s to blame for the mammoth budget deficit facing state government 11 months from now.

The third Republican in the race, Oz Griebel, former president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance, has been spared most of the attacks, but contends the media fascination with the Foley-Fedele squabbling has pulled attention away from himself, and from anyone else interested in discussing Connecticut’s problems.

“It’s never helpful to go negative, especially within your own party,” Healy, who hasn’t endorsed any of the gubernatorial contenders, said Tuesday. “It creates hard feelings that take a while to get over… And we really don’t have that luxury, given that we don’t have the numbers (of registered voters) that the Democrats have.”

But Healy noted that the Republican candidates don’t have a monopoly on negative campaigning, adding that Democrats Ned Lamont and Dan Malloy have locked horns repeatedly in recent weeks. “Ultimately I think Republican voters can sift through all that,” he said. “It’s part of politics,”

Political consultant Richard Foley, a former GOP state chairman who also hasn’t endorsed any of the gubernatorial candidates, said “I anticipate a few more punches will be thrown” when the candidates debate this afternoon at WFSB TV-3 studios in Rocky Hill. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in the bottle.”

That “genie” has taken several forms in recent weeks, including:

  • A Fedele television ad that criticizes Foley for making $20 million as his Georgia textile manufacturer, the Bibb Company, slid into bankruptcy in the 1980s.
  • A second Fedele spot that notes Foley was arrested after an argument with his ex-wife, without mentioning that the charges were dropped. Both Fedele and Griebel have called publicly for Foley to release all records pertaining to two long-ago motor-vehicle arrests, including the 1993 confrontation with his ex-wife.
  • And a Foley commercial that lays the blame for a $3.8 billion state deficit projection – a forecast that was improved to $3.4 billion three months ago – at Fedele’s feet, given that he has been lieutenant governor under Gov. M. Jodi Rell since 2007.

Foley and Fedele’s relationship already was strained when the former launched several court appeals in an unsuccessful effort to block the latter from accessing public campaign financing.

“I made it clear from the beginning I would never put anything up on the media that wasn’t true,” Fedele said, an assertion Foley disputes. “We wanted people to understand what was out there.”

A former state representative, Fedele said despite the recent ads exchanged with Foley, his principal message remains unchanged. “I’m the only candidate who brings private-sector business experience and legislative experience,” he said.

Similarly, Foley insists he simply is drawing an accurate comparison between himself and Fedele, as well as refuting Fedele claims that distort the truth.

“The lieutenant governor supported one of the largest tax increases in Connecticut history,” Foley said, referring to $952 million in new taxes and fees built into the $18.64 billion budget adopted for 2009-10. “He was part of the tax-and-spend problem that got us into this mess.”

Rell refused to sign or to veto that budget, but instead allowed it to become law without her signature in early September 2009, ending a seven-month battle with the legislature.

“The lieutenant governor has been saying a lot of things about me that simply aren’t true and I have to use these debates to set the record straight,” Foley said, defending his own ads against Fedele, who didn’t cast any budget votes as lieutenant governor. “I don’t think that’s fireworks. That’s giving people the facts.”

Fedele’s supporters have depicted their candidate as a friendly, likeable guy, and state House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, a Fedele backer, said he hopes his candidate plays to his strengths over the final week before the primary.

“I know what kind of person he is. I know his soul,” Cafero said. “And people who know Michael like him. He’s a remarkable man. When you’re in the home stretch, you put your best foot forward.”

Griebel charged Tuesday that he’s the only candidate putting any positive message forward. His opponents have spent more time attacking each other than talking in detail about solutions state government’s budget crisis, or to Connecticut’s sluggish economy, he charged.

“The seriousness of the issues facing this state remain out there in spades,” Griebel said, adding he would use the debate to highlight the need for replacing state employee pensions with a system similar to the 401 (k) plans offered in the private sector; giving towns new tools to control property taxes; and reducing state health care costs.

“The daily news coverage is a little frustrating,” Griebel added. “I think it’s unfair to the electorate. I think I have done everything I can to distinguish myself from the two of them and I’m going to continue to talk about the issues that matter.”

But Griebel’s problems go deeper than struggling to rise above the Fedele-Foley feud. The Simsbury Republican doesn’t have the significant personal wealth of Foley nor did he pursue public campaign financing as the lieutenant governor did. As a result, while both Foley and Fedele had raised and spent in excess of $2 million as of their last campaign finance reports, Griebel’s outlay was just over $400,000.

“I think 90 percent of Oz’s problems are financial,” Richard Foley said. “I like Oz and I think he brings something to the process, but you have to be able to deliver that message, even if it is 100 percent positive. “

“Money is an essential element,” the former party chairman added. “You can not like it all you want, but you had better get on the phone and make some (fundraising) calls.”

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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