Rocky Hill — None of the five Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate owns a gun. Four of them have tried pot. They agree on campaign finance reform, but not the price of milk. And none considers Chris Dodd or Joe Lieberman their favorite senator.
So went a 60-minute debate televised live Sunday on WFSB, where U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy once again wore the mantle of front-runner, which drew a blunt attack from Susan Bysiewicz and more subtle gibes from state Rep. William Tong.
Adding spice to the conversation were Lee Whitnum, whose anti-Israel stands drew a rebuke from Murphy, and Matthew Oakes, a Falstaffian figure who patted his ample belly in response to a question about personal weaknesses.
It took Bysiewicz exactly 38 seconds to go after Murphy, a three-term congressman who enjoys a comfortable lead as measured by polling and fundraising, by repeating her contested claim that he opposes closing a tax loophole on hedge funds.
“It’s clear that corporate special interests are in control in Washington,” Bysiewicz said, reading a script. “When you send me to the Senate, I’ll fight for the middle class, not for Wall Street.”
In randomly chosen seats, Murphy was placed between Bysiewicz and Tong.
“Part of what we have to do is stop the sniping and the attack politics that turns so many people off from government today,” Murphy said. “And ultimately if we want to bring people back to having some faith in government, then we have to start talking about positive change, rather than engage in attacks.”
The other criticisms of Murphy by Bysiewicz and Tong were indirect. Most revolved around pleas for voters to consider more than financial resources in judging the candidates.
“We just need to take a step back and say, ‘We’re not electing a fundraiser. We’re electing a United States senator.’ I think it’s important that all of us keep our eye on the ball and talk about the issues that are important,” Tong said.
“Campaigning and elections should be about people and issues and not about who can get the most money,” Bysiewicz said. “Sadly, our U.S. Congress has way too many advocates for Wall Street and corporations. And what we need are advocates who will fight for the middle class.”
Tong and Bysiewicz badly trail Murphy in financial resources.
Murphy has raised at least twice as much as Bysiewicz in four straight quarters, including the first three months of this year. Tong, who is spending more money than he is raising, saw his cash on hand shrink to $226,848 last month.
Murphy has nearly $3 million in cash on hand to $1 million for Bysiewicz.
With his cash on hand shrinking from report to report, Tong likely is facing a hard decision about whether he can afford to continue his candidacy past the convention to the August primary.
Ignoring Bysiewicz’s dig about money he has raised on Wall Street, Murphy said he decried the role of money in Washington. It taints the system, he said.
“Why is it that in Washington when people are looking for budget cuts that they continually come after Medicaid? They continually come after college aid? They come after affordable housing? Why is it that the big subsidies for oil companies come off the table?” Murphy said.
The answer is money, he said.
All five candidates endorsed public financing for campaigns, saying the system created in 2005 for state election in Connecticut should be emulated on a federal level.
Bysiewicz, who was secretary of the state in 2005, said public financing has produced a cultural change in Hartford, reducing the influence of lobbyists.
“That’s the result of that bill I fought for,” she said. “I think it is absolutely imperative we do the same thing in Washington, because Congress is way too cozy with Wall Street and it won’t stop until we change the system.”
Bysiewicz, however, played no significant role in passage of campaign finance reform, which resulted from negotiations between Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Democratic lawmakers.
With too little time for a full round of questions, the debate ended with a series of questions posed by moderator Dennis House that begged for a one- or two-word answer.
Have they tried pot?
A staple of modern debates — name the price of a staple — drew different answers. They were asked the cost of a gallon of milk: Their answers ranged from the $2.49 Bysiewicz says she pays for a half gallon at CVS to the $5.99 Tong says he pays for a gallon of organic.
He should consult with Whitnum: She says she buys organic for $4.49.
Asked to name their favorite Connecticut senator, no one named Dodd, who left the Senate last year after 30 years, or Lieberman, whose intention to retire after 24 years set in motion the crowded race for the open seat. Both saw their political fortunes sour in recent years.
Murphy and Tong quickly named the late Abe Ribicoff, a safe answer.
No one has qualified for the ballot yet. Anyone receiving 15 percent of the vote at the nominating convention next month automatically qualifies for the Aug. 8 primary.
With no known delegate support, Whitnum and Oakes would have to petition for a place on the ballot.
WFSB decided to invite all five candidates, even though Whitnum’s behavior at previous debates, which has been judged as somewhere between edgy and erratic, has been called a distraction by top Democratic officials.
She called Murphy a “whore” at one debate over his support of Israel. On Sunday, she branded Bysiewicz “incompetent” as secretary of the state.
Whitnum called the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America a consequence of the nation’s support of Israel.
Keeping his voice flat, Murphy said he would not allow Whitnum to make that claim unchallenged.
“This notion that Miss Whitnum continues to proffer, that Israel or the United States’ aid for Israel had something to do with 9/11 is wrong, and I’m not going to let her continue to say it without calling it out for the lie that it is,” Murphy said.
Whitnum says she is suing to recover U.S. aid to Israel.
She also has sued Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, saying his criticism of her anti-Israel remarks was slanderous, and the liberal website, My Left Nutmeg. The suit against Malloy was dismissed.
A judge recently refused her request to issue an injunction stopping My Left Nutmeg from posting items about her. She complained in her suit that the site previously has allowed commenters to describe her as “loony,” “crazy,” “mentally ill,” “a nutcase” and anti-Semitic.