GOP congressional contenders in final face-off

Whether fences make for good neighbors -- and sound federal policy -- was up for debate when the candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the 4th Congressional District met for the final time before the party's nominating convention next week.

Four candidates -- state Sen. Dan Debicella of Shelton, Bridgeport businessman Rick Torres, Easton First Selectman Tom Herrmann and Norwalk businessman Rob Merkle -- are vying to unseat incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep Jim Himes, who got his party's nod for re-election Monday night. Two candidates, Rob Russo and Will Gregory, have dropped out of the race.

The candidates met in a debate Wednesday night in Westport sponsored by the local Republican Town Committee.

Asked about the immigration law passed recently in Arizona, only one candidate, Debicella, said erecting a fence along the nation's southern border would not work.

Instead, he said, the nation needs to make illegal immigration unattractive, and one way to do that, Debicella said, is to make immigration easier for those who have a job waiting and to jail those employers who hire illegal aliens. "Fences sound like a good idea, but fences don't even keep rabbits out of my garden," he said.

"No fences?" Torres responded. "How are you going to keep people out?" He said if people living in this part of the U.S. were dealing with the crime that he claims is spawned by illegals, they would think differently about the new Arizona law.

"You have to have a deterrent," agreed Merkle, who suggested that a fence be integrated with federal prisons. "You dual-purpose the guards." The nation's borders need to be patrolled, Herrmann said, and fences need to be built. "They're fed up with the fact that the federal government is not doing its job," he said, referring to Arizona.

All four agreed that the federal government needs to be smaller, taxes need to be lower and the U.S. Constitution needs to be strictly interpreted. But they all had different approaches on how to reach those goals.

And all four, who pledged to repeal or amend the recently adopted national health insurance legislation, said they would vote their conscience, and not the party line, if they get to Washington.

Merkle suggested the government be downsized by 3 to 5 percent cuts across the board, while Debicella and Herrmann proposed budget caps. Torres said he wants government to halt involvement in areas that he feels are inappropriate and that weaning citizens off entitlements is necessary.

Each contender felt that he is the best candidate to defeat Himes in November. It's a battle that will be won in Bridgeport, Torres said, and in 2003 when he ran for mayor in Bridgeport, a heavily Democratic city, he was able to garner 41 percent of the vote.

Debicella cited his experience serving on the state level, while Herrmann said he hasn't been a politician, but rather a public servant. His lack of formal political experience, Merkle said, makes his candidacy most appealing to voters.