In more civil terms, candidates for Dems' Senate nod face off
STORRS -- With a civility agreement in place, the three major Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and two minor contenders gently tried to distinguish themselves during a debate Monday afternoon.
Greenwich's Lee Whitnum, whose description of U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy as a "whore" for Israel during last Thursday's debate resulted in the Monday's good behavior pact, acknowledged during her closing statement having "a little bit of a meltdown."
The balance of the debate, sponsored by the Hartford Courant and Fox CT television, was uneventful, with time spent near the end asking the candidates about their current reading material and what concerts they last saw.
Murphy, the perceived frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, continued to cast himself as the most experienced.
"I don't think you heard a lot of disagreement from the five of us," Murphy told the audience. "The real difference is I've actually done it."
His two major opponents -- former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford -- have portrayed Murphy as an unaccomplished insider with too many ties to Wall Street special interests.
But Monday they mostly focused on themselves. Bysiewicz, as she had Thursday, during her closing statement claimed Murphy is strongly allied with special interests.
Murphy afterward told reporters, "It's too bad she chooses to wait to attack me until the final minutes."
Both Bysiewicz and Tong have said Murphy's campaign coffers are overflowing with Wall Street donations.
Asked to respond to the continued allegations, Murphy said, "People just have to look at my record."
Murphy noted he has joined other lawmakers in calling for a crackdown on excessive oil speculation that some argue drives up gasoline prices.
The event began with a question about how to control the rise of student debt.
Murphy said he is working to convince Congress to prevent a July 1 interest rate hike from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on Stafford loans for low- and middle-income students. Last week he held a news conference in Hartford on the issue.
Bysiewicz and Tong suggested tying federal aid to schools' efforts to control tuition costs.
As a mother with two daughters in college and one son heading there, Bysiewicz said she is keenly aware of the issue.
Whitnum agreed there is a need to control costs, but added students also must take personal responsibility for what they can afford. She said she was a commuter who worked her way through college at three jobs.
"You need to look at your own situation and make wise choices," she said.
If the Supreme Court throws out part or all of the federal health care law, the candidates agreed the law must in some way be salvaged. Murphy suggested going "back to the drawing board" and looking at a public option.
Discussing foreign affairs and defense, Bysiewicz and Matthew Oakes of East Hartford took the strongest position against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
"How fast should we get out of Afghanistan? They (troops) should be home yesterday," she said.
Oakes said, "We've got to bring them home before one more person dies in Afghanistan. Period."
Candidates backed continued sanctions on Iran, with only Murphy adding military action should remain on the table.
Tong said the U.S. needs to engage China on the matter.
"We should say, `You want our help? Access to our markets? ... We need your help in Iran,' " he said.
All of the candidates wove personal stories into their answers. But Tong used Oakes as part of his own closing statement. Oakes has argued he is the most qualified for Senate because of his life experiences. A mugging in 2003 left him disabled. He is gay. And he is poor, living with his mother, trying to hold onto their house.
"During our debate on Thursday Matt Oakes spoke about his mom and their fight to save his home," Tong said. "He reminded us why we're all in this race. Why I'm running for U.S. Senate."
Although the debate was free of name-calling, Whitnum did not waver in her continued criticism of Israel. She said as long as the U.S. continues "throwing money" at that country it will never resolve the Palestinian conflict.
And when the candidates named the last book they read, Whitnum said "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy."
Earlier in the day, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters that Whitnum should not be included in debates, calling her "somebody who's on the fringe of the fringe."
In March, Malloy filed for a civil protective order against Whitnum in a procedural battle over evidence in a defamation lawsuit she filed against the governor in 2010. She charges Malloy defamed her for alleged anti-Semitic statements during the 2008 Democratic primary she ran against Jim Himes.
Staff Writer Ken Dixon contributed to this story.