Storrs — With Monday’s U.S. Senate debate free of verbal fireworks, the five Democrats seeking the nomination who gathered at the University of Connecticut again struggled to draw distinctions between their very similar stands on education, health care and economic development.

And while Greenwich Democrat Lee Whitnum joined her fellow candidates in signing a “civility pledge” before the televised one-hour forum at Von Der Mehden Hall at UConn, she re-emphasized the charge that sparked friction at last week’s forum: that a powerful pro-Israel lobby sparked the war in Iraq.

The candidates managed to stake out some separate ground when it came to boosting the long-stagnant manufacturing sector of Connecticut’s economy.

Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz of Middletown called for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to put U.S. manufacturers on a “level playing field,” coupled with reversing nearly a decade of decline in government investment in manufacturing research and development.

“This economy can’t survive in the long run without a manufacturing footprint,” said 5th District Rep. Christopher Murphy, who said the federal government — not just private businesses — has to stop contracting for work with overseas companies.

The third of the Democratic front-runners, state Rep. William Tong of Stamford, said increased education spending, both for pre-kindergarten programs as well as for vocational-technical high schools are needed to provide manufacturers with the workforce they need to thrive once again.

The candidates also offered different ideas for helping to control the explosion of student loan debt, a $1 trillion problem that now exceeds both credit card and car loan debt in scope.

“I would never have gotten to go to UConn without student loans,” said Murphy, who pledged to fight to maintain the current rate of about 3.4 percent for most loans. That rate is set to rise above 6 percent.

“We have an arms race going on” among U.S. universities and colleges that are more concerned with offering “ever-bigger stadiums, ever-better dorms and ever-more accomplished faculty” rather than controlling tuition costs, Tong said, adding that federal grants should be focused on those institutions that curb tuition increases.

And Bysiewicz said that while she also favors keeping interest rates down and investing in universities that control tuition costs, she thinks that the federal government also should provide students with more options so they can earn their college degrees in less time — thereby reducing potential debt.

The leading three Democrats were less successful at not repeating each other when it came to defense spending, agreeing that it should and likely will continue to shrink in the near future. The focus, they said, should be on investing in the helicopters, jet engines and submarines built in Connecticut, three programs that help make the nation’s military capable of responding to a wide variety of threats.

Whitnum, a former software engineer who has gained some notoriety during this campaign for her outspoken criticism of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, continued to hit that theme Monday.

Whitnum said that the prolonged, costly war in Iraq is one of the two primary factors — along with a collapsing housing market — behind the nation’s last recession. And the nation’s decision to go war was arranged by pro-Israel forces on Capitol Hill, she said.

She said the nation could offset declining military spending and its impact on the economy not only by canceling more than $30 billion in annual aid to Israel, but by resisting Israeli pressure to go to war with Iran.

“We cannot engage in anymore wars for other countries,” Whitnum said. “We must also tell Israel to back down, they cannot get everything they want. … It makes all of us unsafe.”

The other candidates agreed with Whitnum that America should make every effort to avoid war with Iran, focusing instead on economic, political and other sanctions to defer that Middle Eastern nation’s efforts to develop nuclear arms.

But both Murphy and Bysiewicz also said that it’s important for American to maintain strong support for Israel.

“They are our strongest ally in the Middle East,” said the former secretary of the state.

Iran “wants to wipe Israel off the map,” Murphy said, adding that the U.S.-led oil embargo already has put significant pressure on Iran’s economy. “These sanctions can work.”

A political newcomer, Matthew Oakes of East Hartford, noted that the nation’s annual defense spending, which now approaches $700 billion, has grown about 70 percent over the past decade — a pace that is unsustainable even without another war in the Middle East.

“We’re the most powerful nation in the world,” he said. “We don’t need a $700 billion defense budget anymore. … We need to tighten our grip (with sanctions) a little bit more.”

The discussion about foreign affairs and the Middle East was more heated at last week’s forum, and event sponsors — UConn, the Hartford Courant and Fox CT — took steps Monday to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.

Debate moderator Alison Morris, a Fox-CT news anchor, said all candidates signed a pledge beforehand agreeing “to act in a professional manner, treating each other with respect and courtesy.”

Some had argued that wasn’t the case last Friday at WVIT TV-30 studios in West Hartford, when Whitnum closed the forum by referring to Murphy as a “whore” and Tong as “ignorant.” The latter two candidates had told Whitnum that they found her charge that the the American Israel Public Affairs Committee led American into an unnecessary war in Iraq to be offensive.

Whitnum argued that “somehow (her argument) is twisted to be a racist comment” by Murphy and Tong.

After Monday’s forum, Murphy said the event was “a little more civil,” but that Whitnum’s assertions remain “over the line” and “irresponsible.”

“I had a little bit of a meltdown in the last debate,” Whitnum said.

About an hour before Monday’s event, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Whitnum should have been been excluded from further forums based on her comments last Friday, and her standing in the race.

“You are talking about someone who is on the fringe of the fringe,” Malloy told reporters at the State Capitol Monday of Whitnum.

“She has almost no support if any,” Malloy said.

Monday’s forum, which was televised live on the Courant and Fox-CT’s Internet site, was scheduled to be rebroadcast at 7 p.m. on Fox.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

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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