A question about the death penalty offered the only real conflict at Tuesday’s split gubernatorial debates at the University of Connecticut Law School and again highlighted the larger dispute over whether social issues should take a back seat to the state’s fiscal crisis.

When asked whether he would support abolishing the death penalty, Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi appeared to give himself wiggle room should he be elected.

“I would have to review it and certainly the people should be the ones who are the final determination on that issue,” he said. “But no I would not at this point in time go into that issue. We need to stay focused, keep our eye on the ball we have a $4 billion deficit we are looking at.”

Taking issue with political positioning on what he called a “moral issue,” former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy jumped in saying he was going to “break the rules,” as the question had not been posed to him.

“I would advocate for the elimination of the death penalty,” he said, adding that he had tried homicide cases as a prosecutor. “There is no correlation between the death penalty and lowering homicide rates. If there was, Texas would be the safest state in the nation and it’s not. It’s time for us to join the rest of the industrialized world. On a moral ground I oppose the death penalty.”

Both Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman and Juan Figueroa agreed with Malloy on the issue.

When Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said that he believes the death penalty acts as a deterrent and that he supports it “particularly for those crimes that are most heinous,” none of the other six Republican candidates so much as batted an eyelash.

But the focus of the night was on education. UConn President Michael Hogan, at the start of the debates, called UConn an “economic pipeline for the state, graduating thousands of students each year” with 70 percent of them finding their first job in the state of Connecticut.

“These are highly educated and highly skilled students in a variety of disciplines and fields, including professional fields,” he said. “And with that in mind, how the next governor will approach higher education as well as its connection to the state’s economy is of great interest to everyone in this room, to the whole university and of course to the state.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele said that it would be his job as governor to work with higher education and ask “Where will be the jobs four years, five years from now that our employers are going to look at?”

“We have a defining opportunity in this next governor to create jobs, not only to bring back those 100,000 jobs that we lost but to look at the future. What are our future jobs? In 2009, of the top 10 jobs in America, six did not exist in 2005.”

Moderator Chris Duray, editor for the Daily Campus, asked the Republican candidates how they will keep higher education in Connecticut affordable.

Affordable education, Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh said, “is a key factor that we need to focus on to keep the young people here, to bring them here and the ones that do come from out of state to stay.”

He said one way to ensure that would be “working our way through our four year institutions, making them accountable, holding each institution accountable for the processes that they offer, meaning not a lot of redundancies, not a lot of higher costs, just provide the same services elsewhere.”

Other Republican candidates also focused on efficiency as a way to reduce costs. Oz Griebel said that he would like to sit down with the presidents of UConn and the state university system and ask them whether there needs to be “two distinct institutional systems in this state where you’ve got infrastructure that is supporting multiple campuses.” Griebel asked if there was a way that operations could be consolidated.

Republican frontrunner Tom Foley said that in the same way that the state government faces challenges, the universities “need to learn how to do the same with less.” He added that he thinks that the state needs “to figure out how we can make the university system in Connecticut more efficient so we can deliver the same, probably even more product with less expenditures.”

Foley said that other states as well as private philanthropy could offer Connecticut’s public universities new avenues.

When it was Boughton’s turn to answer the question, he first called out his Republican rivals for what he perceived as their avoiding the question. Then he offered two solutions to college affordability in the state and the current budget crisis.

Prefacing his remarks by saying that he would be “lucky to get off campus alive,” Boughton said that “the fact of the matter is that the number one driver in these budgets are benefits, our pension fund costs for employees.” He also suggested leasing out university dormitories during the summer months as a way to offset tuition costs.

When it was the Democratic candidates chance to respond to the question, Glassman credited her success to the affordability of UConn when she attended more than two decades ago. She said that unlike her, kids today cannot make the money they need to pay for school with a summer job. Glassman offered freezing tuition as a way to ensure affordability and said that higher education needs to be the state’s number one priority.

“What it takes is a governor, a state that sees economic development coming from our education system. We haven’t seen that,” Glassman said.

There has never been a governor in the state who attended the University of Connecticut.

“I think it’s time that we have a governor that understands the value of education and sees our higher education institutions, our vo-tech schools, our community colleges and our education institutions as being the economic engine for future growth in the state of Connecticut.”

Figueroa said that education is one of the areas where you have to invest when making budget cuts. “Why do I say that? I say that because it is part and parcel of our economic recovery. Where are we going to get the workers that are going to be needed five, 10, 15 years from now?” He also said that he would support “full tuition free program” for students enrolling in community colleges with a B plus average.

The Democratic frontrunner in the race, Ned Lamont, was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict. Other candidates at the forum included Republicans Lawrence DeNardis and Christopher Duffy Acevedo.