NORWALK — Though somewhat unorthodox, Stephen Tallon’s greeting Sunday to GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley was pretty clear.

“Keep that legislature under control,” the local Lions Club member said as Foley entered the dining room at the Norwalk Inn for the club’s annual pre-election pancake breakfast.

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Tom Foley hears from Jack Jablonski (center) and Stephen Tallon: Control that legislature (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“They spend too much money,” Tallon’s fellow club member, Jack Jablonski, added. “They throw it away. We’re in debt up to our ears.”

Foley, whose strategy for resolving the state budget crisis hinges on cutting spending in unprecedented amounts, is hoping voter frustration with unemployment and the prospect of a big Democrat-sponsored tax hike plan, will bring out his supporters — particularly independents — in large numbers on Election Day.

“If you live in Fairfield County you feel like a step-child of the state,” Tallon said, adding that Connecticut’s southwest corner includes blue-collar communities like Norwalk, and isn’t all million-dollar homes and country clubs. “I’m hoping Tom Foley can bring in some check-and-balance against the spending in Hartford.”

Foley, who greeted about 100 club members during the mid-morning breakfast, said frustration over a $3.3 billion budget deficit — and what might be done to fix it in a state already facing more than 9 percent unemployment — is crucial if he is to win Tuesday against Democrat Dan Malloy.

“That’s the energy. That’s where people are most motivated,” he said, adding Republican voters aren’t the only ones who are worried.

But if unaffiliated voters are the key to the gubernatorial election, two new polls released Saturday offered sharply different views about how these voters feel.

A survey released by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., showed the race virtually even — as have most others in recent weeks — but gave Foley a whopping advantage among independents likely to vote, 58 percent to 33 percent for Malloy.

A second poll released by YouGov, an international, internet-based public policy and research group, found the overall race and the battle for unaffiliated voters to be in a statistical dead heat.

“It’s been our position throughout the campaign that we really don’t talk about polls,” Roy Occhiogrosso, senior advisor to the Malloy campaign, said Sunday. “They really bounce all over the place.”

But Occhiogrosso added that Malloy is running strong with independent voters. “They are concerned about fiscal discipline” and the Democratic nominee’s track record at balancing budgets during his 14-year tenure as mayor of Stamford offers a track record Foley can’t match, he said.

Middle-income households in Connecticut haven’t faced a state income tax hike since 2003. And lame-duck Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the Democrat-controlled legislature used billions of dollars in borrowing, budget reserve funds and emergency federal stimulus grants to avoid both tax hikes and deep spending cuts this year.

Still, Foley–who has pledged to veto any tax increase–said he believes voters expect billions of dollars in new taxes if Democrats control both the governor’s office and the legislature in 2011, and they believe current leadership tried to mask the problem. “I think people feel politicians currently serving in Hartford, in the legislature, have been playing games,” said the Greenwich businessman, who has never held elected office.

Malloy has charged Foley cannot close what effectively amounts to the largest budget deficit in state history without any tax hikes, and has noted the GOP nominee’s plan depends on an economic rebound and revenue growth that none of the leading economists in Connecticut are predicting.

But Wilton Republican Gail Lavielle, the party’s nominee in the 143rd Assembly District, said she believes even those voters who are skeptical of Foley’s chances of avoiding all tax increases know his budget philosophy overwhelmingly depends more on cutting spending than Malloy’s does.

“I think what is really hitting the people who intend to vote the most is that in the last two years the legislature had an opportunity to close this deficit with something other than spending and borrowing and taxes and they did nothing,” she said. The fact that Tom wants to address this actively with spending cuts is the most compelling message.”

Norwalk City Councilman Rick McQuaid, also a Republican, said Foley’s call for concessions from unionized state employees is not being viewed in his community as an attack on labor, but a welcome recognition that public-sector workers can afford to make sacrifices and still enjoy favorable pay and benefits.

“I think the approach Tom is bring to this is we’re all in it together,” he said.

Foley, who concentrated most of his stops Sunday in predominantly Republican Fairfield County, was in southeastern Connecticut for much of Saturday.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Foley said, noting that delegates from the heavily-unaffiliated 2nd Congressional District — which involves the eastern half of the state — helped deliver to him the GOP State Convention endorsement.

“I’ve been in the 2nd District a lot,” he said, adding that reaching out to voters there remains key to a win on Tuesday. “Anyone you can meet personally, look them in the eye and ask them for their vote–that has a lot of value.”

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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