The New York Times recently referred to the Malloy-Foley debates as “The Thrilla in Manila.” Linda McMahon should be lining up the pay-per-view rights.

Thursday evening’s shindig at The Garde in New London is historically feisty:  starring savvy journalists fed gotcha questions from opposing political camps and a raucous crowd that cheers each verbal punch. Still we revere these ‘Lincoln-Douglas’ moments to take a measure of our candidates.

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So here’s a primer (from a guy not famous for his own political victories) on how to judge the bout:

Incumbent Dan Malloy has driven up challenger Tom Foley’s negatives over the last two months with a relentless attack on his character and corporate ineptitude, often drawing on 30-year-old indiscretions. Nobody expects the nasty ads to morph in to Morning in America/Happy Days are Here Again sunny optimism, but the crowd at The Garde should feel free to groan out loud if the debate devolves into a long diatribe about fast cars, fancy yachts, and shuttered textile mills.

Dan has spent his energy excoriating us not to vote for Tom, not so much why to vote for Dan.  Dan’s record is not so bad, why run from it?

Truth be told, the state has made progress over the last few years, but not enough to make a difference. The state economy has been stuck in neutral for a generation, and we continue to get passed by states which have put their fiscal house in order and started on serious pension reform.

I am not thinking about a slash-and-burn Republican governor in Kansas or a Wisconsin moment, but Democratic governors in California and New York who have righted a sinking ship, not to mention a Democratic Treasurer in Rhode Island who has made their pension solvent again.  That’s our immediate competition.

‘Business friendly’ is a lot more than tax cuts and corporate give-aways. It is an honest budget where the citizens do not have to guess every year which tax goes up and whose ox gets gored.

Connecticut is better off than we were in 2010, but Dan, explain optimistically and convincingly why you  need four more years to deal with billion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see (see Keith Phaneuf’s eBook: Ct Budget Crisis), all the while rebuilding our aging infrastructure.  Come on Garde, give a cheer for GAAP accounting and a groan for repeated references to tax avoiding TB Bibbsy yachts.

Over to you, Tom: you cannot play rope-a-dope and expect to dethrone the champ.

If you get off the mat and come out swinging, the base will cheer but the moderates and independents you need to win will shake their heads and stay home.  If you stay in the witness protection program and occasionally announce that you are not Dan Malloy, you will find yourself 6,500 votes short on Election Day.

Your answer to every dicey attack should be the same: Connecticut has been losing new business and jobs and young workers to other states for a long time, and we not continue to lose compared to our peers over the next four years. Connecticut must have a growing economy in order to pay for investments in our future.

We understand that Tom will be much more likely to cut spending than Dan, but give us a few hints about the where and how to show that you are serious about governing.

And dear press: avoid the cheap shot. Admittedly it is much easier to snag a gotcha moment than any substance at an end of the campaign debate.

But you can explore a fundamental difference in philosophy: Dan’s pro-business agenda has featured aggressive use of taxpayer subsidized incentives to companies which promise to move here or to stay in Connecticut. Hundreds of companies have been so blessed. Yep, everybody does it, but in Connecticut, it is not the exception, it is the rule.

Tom would argue that these ‘bribes’ are necessary because our unpredictable tax and spend agenda is toxic to new business startups and old business expansions.

The winner of that debate deserves to be our next governor, and he may win by thoughtfully putting The Garde to sleep on Thursday eve.

Ned Lamont is a Greenwich businessman and professor who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2006.

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