The debate between the three candidates seeking this year's Democratic nomination to run for U.S. Senate was billed Saturday by moderator Ray Hackett as a "conversation."

And that's what took place, if the definition of conversation is two contenders characterizing the front-runner as an ineffective political insider who favors Wall Street over the middle class.

The Norwich Bulletin-sponsored event at Norwich Free Academy -- the first between the three major candidates for the party's nomination -- lasted about 90 minutes.

The group sat comfortably in chairs on the stage, rather than standing behind podiums.

And for much of the time, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy found himself fending off criticism from former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and state Rep. William Tong of Stamford.

With each limited to 25 minutes of total speaking time, Murphy, at around the halfway mark, asked jokingly "I don't get any extra time for answering these extra questions, right?"

The group is competing to replace retiring "independent Democrat" U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

The Democratic nominating convention is May 12 and Murphy is the perceived front-runner based on his experience, sizable campaign war chest and endorsements from Democratic power players in the state.

It did not take long for Bysiewicz to bring up Murphy's 2010 vote against a bill that would have closed the so-called carried interest tax loophole that some wealthy investors are able to use to lower their rates. She has built much of her campaign around holding Wall Street accountable.

"At that moment you stood with Wall Street," Bysiewicz said to Murphy.

Bysiewicz first leveled the claim a few weeks ago. Murphy has countered he voted to close the loophole in the past but did not support other portions of the 2010 bill.

Murphy on Saturday night said he backs a wholesale reworking of the tax code and also supports tax increases on millionaires and billionaires.

Bysiewicz raised the loophole vote at least twice more.

"Repetition doesn't equal truth," Murphy said.

Tong portrayed himself as getting more done during his three terms in the General Assembly, leading in the passage of bills on foreclosure assistance, gun control and criminal justice information technology, than Murphy has while in Congress.

"I don't mind the fact I'm going to be the one receiving the brunt of the attacks tonight," Murphy said. "But that one's just not true."

He cited his work on a supportive housing investment act to help provide assistance to individuals with mental illness.

He also brought up his support of "buy American" initiatives. Tong dismissed it.

"I'm proud of being one of the strongest voices for manufacturing in Congress," Murphy said.

The one thing the three agreed upon was that the likely Republican opponent would be Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million of the fortune her family has made running Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment on a failed Senate bid in 2010.

Former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays is vying with McMahon for the Republican nomination.

Bysiewicz and Tong argued they are Washington outsiders who would best deflect McMahon's claims she is the non-politician in the race.

"Chris, I guess you're the only career politician here, then," Hackett said, prompting laughter from the audience.

Murphy responded, "You know what? I don't apologize for my public service."

Bysiewicz was the first of the three contenders to broach the subject of foreign affairs, using Hackett's question about the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and submarine base in southeastern Connecticut.

"Where's the sense of urgency about bringing our young people back from Afghanistan?" she asked.

When the topic moved to the issue of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and a potential military strike by Israel, Murphy said the United States must be involved in "aggressive diplomatic talks" with both countries.

"Right now, economic sanctions are working (on Iran)," he added.

Bysiewicz agreed with the need for aggressive and strong diplomatic efforts.

"Military action should be our last resort," she said.

Tong said, "I think the world community agrees it would be in the U.S.' interests to take action if Iran was about to acquire a nuclear weapon."

Although Murphy, due to his congressional experience, would enjoy a slight advantage, Hackett noted all three will lack the clout that comes with seniority if elected to the Senate.

Bysiewicz said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, who took office in January 2009, has proven seniority does not matter, just the willingness to get things done.

"She's an example of someone who got there and hit the ground running," she said.