Republican Tom Foley called his job-creation numbers “phony,” and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy smiled. Foley taunted that Malloy’s endorsement of a friend was the kiss of death, and Malloy shrugged. Foley suggested Malloy was a crook, and Malloy grinned.

It was the same couldn’t-be-bothered air exhibited by Malloy, routinely mentioned as one of the nation’s most endangered governors, every time a Republican opened a gubernatorial campaign with ringing condemnations of him.

Malloy hasn’t gone soft.

There is a method to the mellowness.

“There’s five Republicans running for governor,” Malloy told reporters recently. “They should all have a good time. They’ve got to worry about the other Republicans in the race. That’s what’s going to happen for a while, folks.”

In other words, Malloy is going to try to be gubernatorial for as long as he can, staying above the fray as the field of GOP challengers grows and, inevitably, turns on each other as they try to engage the first-term Democratic governor.

“I think I get what he’s doing, doing a bit of rope-a-dope. Let these guys expend their energy early,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who’s seldom had a problem drawing the governor into public debates.

It’s what President Obama did during the long, long season of Republican primaries in 2012. It’s what Gov. M. Jodi Rell did in 2006, when Malloy and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano fought for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

It’s totally conventional.

It’s just a little jarring to a press and public familiar with a governor who draws energy from verbal jousting and happily challenges the premise of reporters’ questions, much less an opponent’s open attacks on his intellect or integrity.

“For a guy who runs to fights, it will be a real test of his genetic makeup, not to jump every time,” said Chris Healy, the former GOP state chairman. “He is disciplined enough to know he should do certain things, but we’re all human.”

“He’s more restrained than people give him credit for being,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, an adviser and confidant through two gubernatorial races. “All the Republicans who are running are saying, at times, such outrageous things. What’s the point in responding?”

Malloy, who ran nearly non-stop for governor from 2005 through the losing 2006 effort and onto his victory in 2010, is likely to be the last one to formally enter the 2014 race.

It is an advantage of incumbency, even for an incumbent struggling to get above 50 percent in any key polling measure, save one: 78 percent of his Democratic base approves of his job performance. Overall, the electorate is evenly split, with 47 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving. Only 44 percent say he deserves re-election.

Four years ago at this time, Malloy was finishing his 14-year run as mayor of Stamford, tightly focused on turning a narrow loss in the 2006 gubernatorial primary into a win. His exploratory committee already had raised $380,000 and would collect more than $500,000 before he declared as a candidate in 2010.

Malloy now has an extensive donor base, which his supporters think will enable him to quickly raise the $250,000 in small donations necessary to qualify for public financing under the state’s voluntary Citizens’ Election Program.

The only politicians to create exploratory or candidate committees this cycle are Republicans: Foley, the 2010 nominee, announced an exploratory effort Tuesday, joining Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton. Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield and Joseph Visconti, a former West Hartford council member, have formed candidate committees, as has a political unknown, Gordon T. Ward of Manchester.

Republicans, even one with a demonstrated knack for getting under Malloy’s skin, are not surprised he has had the discipline to stay on message, even if the message about his would-be challengers is no message.

“This isn’t his first rodeo, as they say,” Cafero said. “He knows the game.”

Besides, the turn-the-other-cheek vibe does not extend beyond the governor.

When McKinney announced his candidacy in June, the Connecticut Democratic Party issued daily press releases for a week, picking at McKinney’s voting record in the General Assembly.

And while Malloy wouldn’t be publicly provoked by Foley’s unspecified claim of ethical lapses, Occhiogrosso wasn’t so reticent. He called Foley “cowardly and irresponsible” and added, “He should put up or shut up.”

Occhiogrosso said there is no upside to helping the Republicans draw attention to what he says is their over-the-top common message: “Connecticut is the worst place to live, and everything is Dan Malloy’s fault.”

He suggested the soundness of the strategy is borne out in this story.

“You’re writing a story about him not responding,” Occhiogrosso said. “If he was responding, you’d be writing a story why he is responding.”

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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