Norwich — U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, handed the front-runner’s role in a three-way Senate debate Saturday night, gently pushed back at repeated criticisms by his two main rivals for the Democratic nomination, Susan Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford.

The pecking order of the three candidates at their first debate was clear: Bysiewicz went after Murphy as a Washington insider, and the trailing Tong assailed Bysiewicz and Murphy as career politicians vulnerable in the general election if the Republican nominee is the wealthy businesswoman, Linda McMahon.

Murphy was measured in his responses.

Bysiewicz, Tong, Murphy

Bysiewicz, Tong and Murphy share a cordial moment before the debate.

“I don’t think Democrats want us sniping at each other,” Murphy said after the debate, not a surprising position from a front-runner. “I understand these guys think they can only win by tearing me down. I just don’t think that’s my path to victory.”

Murphy, 38, of Cheshire, a three-term congressman who was elected to the General Assembly at age 25, leads in polling, fundraising and major endorsements, leaving Bysiewicz and Tong with the burden of highlighting flaws that could make Democratic convention delegates and primary voters turn away from Murphy.

Over 90 minutes on stage at the Norwich Free Academy, Bysiewicz and Tong each probed for weaknesses in his voting record and his status as the only Washington politician in the race.

Bysiewicz, 50, of Middletown, a former secretary of the state and state legislator, repeatedly tried to tie Murphy to Wall Street, returning time and again to Murphy’s vote in May 2010 against a broad tax bill that would have ended the “carried interest” tax break on hedge funds.

“That was a moment when there couldn’t have been a clearer time to show: do you stand with the middle class families who are struggling or do you stand with Wall Street?” Bysiewicz said. “At that moment you stood with Wall Street.”

Murphy, who says he has voted three other times to close the loophole, said he was one of 34 Democrats who voted against the bill in the House because it would have added $53 billion to the deficit.

“My position, as Susan knows, is very clear on this,” Murphy said. “I oppose that loophole. I voted over and over again to close it. It’s a bigger problem, though. That’s just one egregious piece of our tax code.

Bysiewicz, who is running second in polling and fundraising, used “Wall Street” in the same sentence with “Murphy” whenever possible. She opened and closed with withering references to Wall Street, a source of income for significant numbers of voters in Connecticut.

“I am the candidate in this race who will go to Washington and hold Wall Street accountable for the mess they have created in our country,” she said. “And I am the only candidate in this race that has a very specific plan to hold Wall Street accountable for the damage they’ve done.”

Bysiewicz has proposed a transaction tax of .25 percent on the buyer and seller of every stock trade, which she says would raise $150 billion, most of which would go to assist homeowners whose mortgages are underwater.

Tong, 38, touted his underdog status and his status as the son of a Chinese immigrant who came to the U.S. with 57 cents, as a virtue. He does not register in most polling, and his cash on hand has shrunk in the last two quarterly finance reports to $279,445, compared with $2.5 million for Murphy and $889,805 for Bysiewicz.


The candidates on stage with Ray Hackett.

He told the audience that McMahon, the Republican nominee in 2010 who is running again, is eager to run against a career politician like Murphy or Bysiewicz.

“Linda McMahon is at home right now in Greenwich preparing to spend $50 million or more,” Tong said. “She’s no dummy. She knows the fight she wants. She knows the matchup she wants. And with all due respect, she wants to run against Chris Murphy or Susan Bysiewicz.”

Tong, who has been a state representative for six years, said he is a fresher face.

“If you want somebody who’s been around in politics for two decades, then Susan Bysiewicz is maybe going to be your choice,” Tong said. “If you think Washington’s doing a good job, you may want to give Chris Murphy a promotion.”

Murphy is a former state representative and state senator who unseated U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Republican, who was then dean of the House delegation.

“You know what, I don’t apologize for my public service,” said Murphy, who unseated longterm incumbents in the General Assembly and Congress. “Nobody’s handed me anything in my life, certainly not the opportunity to serve.”

Murphy talked about his efforts to break though partisan gridlock with the Center Aisle Caucus, a bipartisan group of about 40 Democrats and Republicans, and his push for the federal government to buy from American manufacturers.

Tong suggested the Murphy record is not substantive.

“He talks about the Center Aisle Caucus, the land conservation caucus, the Buy American Caucus. That’s a lot of caucuses,” Tong said. “But with all due respect, I think it’s a question of effectiveness. We haven’t seen the results coming from Washington.”

Bysiewicz took credit for a pension revocation law passed after the conviction of the former governor, John G. Rowland, though her remarks might have left observers with the misimpression that the law cost Rowland his annual pension of about $50,000. She called it “ridiculous” that the law did not block the payment of pensions to corrupt officials.

“It took us two years standing up to the governor and standing up to state senators to make that happen, but we prevailed,” Bysiewicz said, referring to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. “Because all of the citizens of Connecticut thought that was the right thing to do.”

All three candidates described themselves as attuned to the struggles of the middle class. Murphy and Tong borrowed liberally from the up-from-poverty story of a parent, even though both grew up in lives of privilege, as did Bysiewicz.

“My mother grew up in public housing,” said Murphy, whose father is the managing partner of a downtown Hartford law firm, Shipman & Goodwin. Murphy is a graduate of Williams College and the University of Connecticut Law School.

“If you’ve ever been an underdog and if you’ve ever been down just to your last 57 cents, you know what I’m talking about,” Tong said. “We have to do something different. We have to reclaim that dream. Let me fight for you.”

Tong worked alongside his parents in their restaurant as a child, but he also was treated to an elite private education from a young age: Renbrook, Phillips Academy and Brown University. He also has a law degree from the University of Chicago, where one of his professors was Barack Obama.

Bysiewicz mentioned growing up on a farm, but not being the daughter of a prominent law professor at UConn. Bysiewicz is a graduate of Yale and Duke Law School.

The debate was sponsored by the Norwich Bulletin in a 440-seat auditorium. All tickets to the event were taken, but there were dozens of seats left open by no-shows.

The format was flexible, allowing the candidates to address each other. The moderator, Bulletin columnist Ray Hackett, delivered on a promise to allow a free-wheeling conversation.

Republicans will debate in the same format here on April 19. McMahon is competing for the GOP nomination with former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District, and Brian K. Hill.

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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