Tom Foley and John P. McKinney face off. pool photo/Hartford Courant
Tom Foley and John P. McKinney face off.
Tom Foley and John P. McKinney face off. pool photo/Hartford Courant

The first of two televised debates between Republicans Tom Foley and John P. McKinney was less an exploration of policy differences than an effort to define each other and the Democrat they hope to succeed, Dannel P. Malloy.

Over 60 minutes Thursday, they hewed to game plans of reinforcing early advertising themes: Foley’s attempt to paint McKinney as an insider; McKinney’s depiction of Foley as too bland, cautious and vague to lead.

McKinney, the state Senate minority leader, was sharper and more aggressive, yet Foley most likely left satisfied that neither said anything to substantially change the dynamic of a race that has favored the better-known Foley.

Other than once addressing McKinney as “governor” — McKinney said he liked the ring of that — Foley created no obvious YouTube moments that will outlive a debate that was streamed live at and and will be aired Sunday at 10 a.m. on FoxCT.

Foley, 62, of Greenwich, a businessman who came within 6,404 votes of being elected governor in 2010 as the GOP nominee, approached the debate at The Hartford Courant with the same caution that has marked his campaign.

On one of the most contentious issue of the day, he was resolutely vague: Foley said he dislikes some of the sweeping gun controls enacted in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, but offered no specifics during the debate or the press conference that followed.

McKinney, 50, of Fairfield, whose 28th Senate District includes Newtown, tried to capitalize on Foley’s reticence and turn it into a reason for voters to doubt his opponent’s character and ability to lead.

“Look, in order to fix the problems we have in Connecticut, we need strong leaders. We need people who are willing to take strong positions and take a stand,” McKinney said. “When the Newtown tragedy happened, I stood and had the courage to take a stand and fight for the people I represent. Tom sat on the sidelines and lobbed criticisms, and he has yet to offer one specific plan about what he would do.”

Foley, the GOP convention-endorsed candidate, could have noted that McKinney has hedged on gun-control, telling a Tea Party audience in April that would defer to the legislature if it repealed the bill, an unlikely hypothetical. But he let the remark pass.

Foley has made the calculation there is no profit in expressing an opinion about whether the state was right to ban the sales of military-style weapons such as the AR-15 rifle and magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. He did not waver from that position Thursday.

Instead, Foley has tried to neutralize the issue by saying he would not seek the repeal or the revision of the law, which McKinney voted for and Malloy signed. In a GOP primary, polls indicate the advantage lies not with the legislator who voted for gun control.

McKinney and Foley each decried the Common Core curriculum standards, the state’s business and fiscal climate, Malloy’s $1.5 billion tax increase in 2011, and the unreliability of Metro-North, the commuter rail system vital to the GOP base of Fairfield County. Malloy was a palpable presence, his name was  invoked so frequently.

McKinney said he would not renew the state’s contract with Metro-North as the operator of the state-owned New Haven line, though he later acknowledged that disengaging from the partnership with New York would be difficult.

Foley hedged on firing Metro-North.

“We need a solution for Metro-North,” Foley said. “I have the experience to make that happen.”

Foley criticized McKinney for voting in 2005 to raise the gross receipts tax on petroleum, which was part of a bipartisan bill that financed nearly $1 billion in transportation infrastructure, including new rail cars for Metro-North and a new railroad repair yard.

“It was a historic investment in our transportation infrastructure,” McKinney said. “And for someone from Fairfield County like Tom to be opposed to new rail cars, fixing a rail line, improving mass transportation, fixing bridges – after even President Obama has condemned the Malloy administration’s practices on our roads and bridges — it is shocking to me.”

Foley ignored the gibe about transportation and repeated his criticism of McKinney for supporting higher gasoline taxes — too much of which was spent for goods and services other than transportation. He said the deal was the approach of an insider, the word he uses brand McKinney and Malloy as two of a kind.

McKinney said he is better equipped than Foley to oversee state finances, noting he participated in the drafting of Republican alternative budgets, though the GOP minority offered no such plan this year.

“I don’t even know if Tom has read the state budget, much less put one together,” McKinney said. “We need someone who on day one who can put a budget before the legislature that is balanced, that reduces spending, shrinks the size of state government.”

Both men said they opposed the legalization of recreational marijuana use, calling it a “gateway drug.” McKinney noted he voted in the legislature against marijuana decriminalization and the legalization of cannabis for medical uses.

Without saying they would have eventually reached a different conclusion, Foley and McKinney both suggested Malloy was hasty in refusing a request by the Obama administration to house some of the Central American children who here illegally and are awaiting deportation hearings.

“This problem originates with the failure of our federal government to come up with a comprehensive immigration policy,” Foley said. “But I have to tell you I was a little surprised at how quickly Gov. Malloy made the decision to not try to accommodate some of these young people.”

McKinney accused Malloy, who has supported drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants under some circumstances, of making a political decision.

“We don’t need leaders who make decisions based on polling,” McKinney said.

They each declined to offer an opinion on the merits of the Hobby Lobby decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed closely held companies to withhold coverage for forms of contraception that are counter to the owner’s religious beliefs.

“I am running for governor of Connecticut, not a Supreme Court justice,” McKinney said.

In his closing argument, Foley directly addressed the audience.

“I will offer a choice in the upcoming election. I want to bring a new, pro-growth agenda and get Connecticut headed in a better direction,” Foley said. “If I am your governor, I promise I will represent you, ordinary citizens, not insiders and special interests at the Capitol.”

McKinney said he has worked in the legislature for 16 years to represent voters.

“Tom, you may call that being an insider, but if that’s being an insider, that’s a badge I’ll wear proudly,” McKinney said.

McKinney, whose father was a congressman, said Foley is stretching credulity to present himself as a political outsider. Foley, whose father-in-law was a Republican national chairman, was a major political fundraiser for George W. Bush and was rewarded by Bush naming him ambassador to Ireland.

After the debate, Foley said he was talking about McKinney as a Hartford insider. He said his own standing in GOP national politics was irrelevant.

“I’m talking about Connecticut. That has nothing to do with Connecticut,” Foley said after the debate. “I’m talking about insiders and people who have been around a long time using the same policies that obviously aren’t working here in Connecticut.”

The two men do not debate again until Aug. 10, two days before the Republican primary. Both are participating in the state’s voluntary system of publicly financed campaigns and must abide by a spending limit of $1.6 million.

McKinney’s grant application was approved Wednesday. The winner of the primary will get a $6.5 million public grant for the general election.

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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