With the dust barely settled on the 2010 gubernatorial primaries, Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican Tom Foley did their best Wednesday to leave the past behind them.

Not the distant past; just the last few weeks.

Malloy, who rode a wave of strong support from state employee unions and other core Democratic Party activists to overcome Ned Lamont’s four-to-one edge in spending, referred nearly a dozen times – with little variation – to the message he believes  also will carry across most of Connecticut’s political spectrum.

foley and malloy, 8-12-10

Gubernatorial candidates Tom Foley, left, and Dan Malloy give interviews a day after winning their party primaries (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“Who do they (voters) trust? Who has the experience? Who has the values to lead them and their state in perhaps its greatest period of challenge in any of our lifetimes?” Malloy said during a mid-day press conference in his Hartford campaign headquarters. “I think that message resonates with independent voters.”

In Foley’s case, the past involves four weeks’ worth of ads aired by his chief GOP rival, Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, challenging Foley to disclose details behind old arrests and accusing him of siphoning millions of dollars out of a Georgia textile mill that slipped into bankruptcy two years after Foley sold it in 1996.

Those spots helped slice a 35-percentage point lead in early Quinnipiac University poll down to a narrow 42 percent to 39 percent win over Fedele Tuesday. And Foley’s past remains fertile ground for Malloy to till in the general election.

On Tuesday, though, Malloy was emphasizing his own issues.

“We knew we were outgunned” financially by Lamont, “so we maximized our attributes,” Malloy said.

Among the “attributes” Malloy cited frequently throughout the primary campaign were protecting programs that serve Connecticut’s elderly, sick and disabled; changing a tax system that overburdens the middle class; making job development a priority; ensuring government transparency and a balanced budget; and working with public-sector employees to find savings.

One of the state’s largest public unions, Local 2001 of the Connecticut State Employees Association/Service Employees Union International, issued a statement early today making it clear that Malloy had help in defeating Lamont.

“After making thousands of phone calls and mailing out thousands of leaflets over the past month, the union’s active and retired public service workers played a decisive role in turning a race that was too close to call on election day into a solid win,” read the statement by Local 2001, which represents nearly 25,000 active and retired state, municipal and school district employees.

With union leaders taking credit for Malloy’s win, what happens when the general election debate turns to the issue of labor concessions to help close a $3.4 billion state budget deficit? Foley, a Greenwich millionaire, already has said he needs major concessions from state workers to eliminate the deficit.

“Every time I hear people who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars talk about Connecticut’s middle class that way, it makes my day,” Malloy said.

But when Malloy was pressed as to whether he believes state employee compensation or benefits are too high, and whether he would consider layoffs, the Stamford Democrat was somewhat vague.

“There are going to be hard decisions to make, hard choices to make,” he said. “I’ve been very clear to everyone inside labor, outside labor, that everyone’s invited to the table, everyone’s coming to the table.”

“Dan Malloy is not going to fool anybody by saying he is a born-again centrist,” Republican State Chairman Chris Healy said Wednesday. “The SEIU and the other unions are the reason Dan Malloy was nominated. He made his bed.”

Foley recovered from a tense election night by giving radio and television interviews and chatting up the lunch crowd at O’Rourke’s Diner in Middletown.

The Greenwich businessman made it clear Wednesday he hopes the general election campaign will focus on the issues facing Connecticut, adding he wants to sit down with Malloy and reach an agreement to refrain from using attack ads. He said he heard from voters that they were “really sick and tired of the nasty ads,” and said polling showed that voters care about issues – jobs, the economy, the cost of state government, and not wanting to have their taxes increased.

Malloy said he would be willing to discuss some form of clean campaign pledge. But when asked whether he would consider using Foley’s track record with the Bibb Textile Mill in Georgia – an ad GOP insiders said hurt Foley considerably in the primary – Malloy didn’t rule it out.

“That’s a strategic question that I just haven’t had time to consider, to tell you the truth,” Malloy said.

Simsbury Republican Oz Griebel, who finished third in his party’s gubernatorial primary, accused both Foley and Fedele of behaving like children flinging mud in a sandbox, adding their negative ads had provided the Democrats with a “playbook” to exploit in the general election.

Mansfield political consultant, Jonathan Pelto, a former strategist for the Connecticut Democratic Party, said the prospects of either candidate steering clear of negative ads was slim. But he added Foley will face his own challenge finding support away from the far right.

“He’s going to have to move to a place where he currently isn’t comfortable,” Pelto predicted, adding that Foley’s opposition to a more progressive state income tax, and his willingness to consider cuts to social service programs for the poor, will put him at odds with many independent voters.

“Slash-and-burn is not a message that wins in Connecticut,” he said.

Foley dismissed the idea that he would be painted as a wealthy elitist in his race against Malloy.

“He’s from Fairfield County too, last time I checked,” Foley said, adding that if voters perceived him as elitist he would not have won the primary.

“Voters are smart,” he said. “They don’t necessarily just listen to what your opponents say.”

As for unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in the state, Foley said they face many of the same issues that registered Republicans and Democrats face, starting with jobs.

“We need to change the direction that the state has taken toward employers,” he said. “We need to make it more accommodating to employers. We need to make it less expensive to employ people here in Connecticut.”

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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