Republican candidates for governor faced questions – and one another – in a debate Wednesday night on NBC Connecticut. If you didn’t manage to watch, don’t worry. You didn’t miss much.
The three candidates, former Ambassador Tom Foley, Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, and businessman Oz Griebel, answered questions first from the moderators, then from Connecticut residents, and finally from one another. The debate did not produce a clear winner, though each man had an opportunity at the end to try to exploit one another’s weaknesses through direct questioning. Sadly, there was not enough here of real substance beyond brief talking points and canned answers – a drawback of the format, perhaps.
The debate focused heavily on economics, business, and the budget, though it did touch on other areas such as education and the problems facing Hartford. However, even these broader issues were brought back by the candidates’ answers to economics, business, and spending.
So how did each candidate do?
Tom Foley – The frontrunner did what he needed to do tonight – barely. He didn’t make any huge mistakes, and he didn’t let Fedele or Griebel walk all over him. But he was hardly a commanding presence in front of the cameras, peppering his vague statements with “um” and “ah.” He seemed stilted coming out of the gate, and though he warmed up somewhat as time went on, he gave the air of someone who was distinctly uncomfortable. He offered few specifics. A typical Foley response to a question was to deliver a standard, wide-angle talking point, refer to his plan, and be as noncommittal and uncontroversial as possible. He did little to distinguish himself from his opponents.
Foley’s best moments came at the end of the debate, when both Fedele and Griebel attacked him over his business dealings, his Iraq record, and several long-ago arrests. Foley laughed off each attack and accused his opponents of distorting his record. Here, oddly, was where he appeared to be most comfortable. The change from his stilted, stumbling answers to policy questions to these folksy deflections was actually jarring to the point of unreality. Perhaps his handlers should have prepped him better for the policy portion of the debate, instead?
Michael Fedele – The lieutenant governor did well, but not well enough to make up the ground between himself and Foley. He came under fire almost instantly from his opponent for his participation in the Citizens’ Election Program, which he defended as a protection against corruption. He came off as likable, knowledgeable, and moderate by comparison to Foley. He was at his best when discussing business and education, two areas of obvious interest to him.
However, he never managed to land a solid blow against Foley. He launched an attack on Foley at the end over his business record, but Foley deflected it easily, and Fedele seemed a bit uncomfortable delivering it. What could have been a turning point fell flat.
Fedele was loathe to pick up the mantle of the Rell administration, which is interesting considering how much he obviously wanted the governor’s endorsement at the beginning of the race. He even took a mild swipe at her when he talked about the need for a governor to actually go to Washington and work with national leaders. Fedele is still a viable candidate, but he is running out of chances, and the three-way format hurt him.
Oz Griebel – Griebel had some of the more interesting ideas of the night, and probably had the best performance of any of the candidates. For example, he was the only candidate to suggest studying tolls (Foley and Fedele, both from Fairfield County, were unequivocally against them), and talked about a regional approach to education and services, saying that we couldn’t have 169 of everything in Connecticut.
He had a few strange moments. Oddly, he suggested that the Citizens’ Election Program was an “overreaction” to the Rowland scandal, and suggested that “the system worked” in that instance, which is certainly debatable.
Overall, though, Griebel did well, though it remains to be seen whether he did well enough and in front of a large enough audience to move his abysmal poll numbers.
In short, this wasn’t a debate that had a winner or any clear losers. Foley came under attack following a lousy few weeks, but survived. Fedele and Griebel did well but couldn’t break through. Status quo maintained.
These three candidates will meet again in New London at the end of the month.
Chris Bigelow is the former owner/author of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.