GOP governor hopefuls square off -- against Malloy

They differed in style and on some of the issues, but there was one thing the candidates in Sunday's debate among Republican gubernatorial hopefuls agreed on:

Any of the candidates on the stage at Brookfield High School, they said, would do a better job running the state than Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Four of the six GOP candidates currently running -- state Sens. John McKinney of Fairfield and Toni Boucher of Wilton, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and West Hartford businessman Joseph Visconti -- took part in the debate sponsored by the Brookfield Republican Town Committee.

Absent were former ambassador Tom Foley, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee four years ago, who said he had a prior commitment, and Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti.

About 150 people attended.

Despite an occasional disagreement on the issues, the four scrupulously avoided taking potshots at each other, preferring to direct their fire at Malloy, the incumbent Democrat.

"We know Connecticut is headed in the wrong direction," said McKinney, currently the minority leader in the state Senate. "I think that we all agree that any of us up here will be a better governor," a comment that was repeated in various forms by the others.

What the state needs, the candidates said, was a governor that would end overspending, create a business-friendly environment to encourage job growth and end the unfunded mandates that place an increasing strain on local taxpayers.

They were unanimous in condemning the governor's education reform program.

"One-size mandates from big government don't work," said McKinney.

"Do we want to build widgets, or do we want to build people?" Boughton asked, adding that his administration would launch a surge in "getting more parents involved in the educational process."

Boucher said it might be time for state education officials to consider a seven-hour school day and a 200-day school year.

The four hopefuls also stressed the importance of putting forward a candidate who could persuade unaffiliated voters and Democrats to vote for a Republican, because of their party's minority status among registered voters.

Visconti said he's heard from "tens of thousands of Democrats" in the 10 months since he announced his candidacy.

"They want Dan Malloy out," Visconti said.

All four also pledged that as governor, they would sit down with Metro-North officials to resolve the safety and service problems that have plagued the commuter railroad in recent years.

Despite their similarities, the candidates disagreed on other topics, with Boucher and McKinney stating their continuing opposition to recent moves to decriminalize marijuana and to permit its use for medical purposes.

McKinney said such efforts fly in the face of federal law, which continues to ban marijuana use. And he said he's seen eager, bright-eyed children turn into high school dropouts because of marijuana use.

Boughton was more restrained, noting that while he is concerned about marijuana's "gateway effects," the tide of public opinion is turning, and he would be keeping an eye on Colorado "to see how it winds up at the end of the day."

While taking care not to attack each other, the four each said they would be the best Republican to represent the party in November.

Boucher stressed her ability to appeal to Democrats who comprise a majority in four of the seven towns in her district, while Boughton highlighted his record of being the longest-serving mayor in the history of Danbury, a city with an overwhelming majority of registered Democrats.

McKinney cited his accomplishments in 15 years in the state Senate, while Visconti said his background in the construction and contracting field made him a candidate who would have broader appeal among voters, no matter their affiliation.