(Updated 9:30 p.m.)  It was hard for the eight Republican gubernatorial candidates to talk about anything but the state budget. Even a question about the death penalty ended in talk about dollars and cents as the candidates used the first televised debate to try to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Many agreed that the state’s dire economic situation—the next governor is likely to inherit a more than $3 billion deficit—is too great to waste anytime on social issues.

All of the candidates said they support the death penalty.

On the fiscal issues, there wasn’t too much disagreement amongst many of the candidates, except for C. Duffy Acevedo of Branford, a relative newcomer who entered the race just a few weeks go.

While most of the candidates talked about getting together with the state employees unions to talk about concessions and even cuts, Acevedo said he refuses to talk about cutting union jobs.

“Being pro-union is not being anti-business,” Acevedo said. “We’re in this together with the unions.”

Acevedo went on to mention House bill 5501 several times during the debate as an answer to the state’s economic woes. The bill allows $5 billion of small business credit to be delivered to the state.

Acevedo left many of the candidates scratching their heads as he sometimes confused the roles of the state legislature and Congress.

The frontrunner in the race based on the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Tom Foley, said the death penalty is not one of the issues he hears people talking about as he travels the state.

“There’s really four things people are talking about around the state. It’s jobs and the economy, it’s reducing the size and cost of state government, reducing the tax burden on working families, and changing the way business is done in Hartford,” Foley, the former Ambassador to Ireland, said. 

Oz Griebel, who is currently on leave from his position as president of the Metro Hartford Alliance, said he has no plans to change the death penalty.

“Our most important social issue is economic,” Griebel said. “It’s restoring 100,000 jobs and getting people back to work so they can support their families.“

He said the next governor needs to set the tone of the 2011 legislative session by making sure balancing the state budget is the only issue on the agenda.

In a question about United Technologies Corporation’s recent statement that it would seek to locate “anywhere but Connecticut,” former Congressman Larry DeNardis talked about his support for bill introduced by the Democrats in the state legislature.

“One of things I would do immediately is pass Senate bill one,“ DeNardis said. “That would provide some assistance.” He said the bill does relieve some taxes for small businesses.

In answering the same question, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, one of the three municipal leaders, said what the next governor can’t do is give the legislature anymore money.

“They’re kind of like the movie ‘Gremlins,’ ‘’ Boughton said. “If you feed them after midnight and give them water after midnight, they will multiply with bad ideas and bad public policy. So the bottom line here is we can’t feed the gremlin.”

Newington Mayor Jeff Wright said UTC’s statement was absolutely frightening. He said the state is facing a more than $3 billion budget deficit and small businesses have to be wondering when the “other shoe is going to drop.”

“We have a spending problem,” Wright said.

Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh, who is also a small business owner, said it’s not just UTC. He said small businesses are closing up shop and leaving the state, but they’re just not getting the same media attention. He said if he was governor he would be a “cheerleader” for the state to help attract businesses.

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, who has served the past three years in Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration, said he would be the state’s chief economic development officer. And while he didn’t say it specifically during the debate Fedele said Wednesday that his budget would include no new taxes or revenue increases.

On Thursday Fedele, who is still polling in the single digits, said he would implement a four-year hiring freeze, freeze municipal bonding, and go through the budget line-by-line.

At 7 p.m., Friday the six Democratic candidates will square up in another NBC Connecticut debate.