Susan Bysiewicz came out swinging but failed to land a hit against frontrunner U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, while both Murphy and dark horse William Tong turned in strong but very different performances during the first debate in the race for the 2012 Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. The populist and combative tone of all three candidates, each of whom described themselves as fighters during the contest, may foreshadow a bruising election fight in 2012.

The substance of the forum, which was held at the Working Families’ Party annual meeting, was theoretically three questions asked by party members sandwiched between lengthy opening and closing statements. However, the questions themselves, about closing tax loopholes, opposing any cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and creating a WPA-like jobs program, didn’t generate any real policy disagreement between the candidates. All three staked claims in fairly liberal territory, though Tong seemed more moderate at times. The real differences emerged over issues not raised by the questions, temperament and background.

Murphy is the presumed front-runner in this race, and he acted the part. He mostly ignored his opponents, reserving his anger for Republicans. He was at his best when promising to bring the fight to the Tea Party, battling back against core conservative ideas about taxes and the role of government, and channeling liberal angst. He reminded voters that he won in 2006 despite conventional wisdom suggesting no one could defeat popular incumbent U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, and that he won again in 2010 in the face of a massive Republican wave. He is trying to position himself as a staunch liberal with consistent values, who will fight for what he believes in no matter what. “I’m not going to change my values based on shifting political winds,” he said in his opening statement. “We won in 2010 because our spine stiffened when the going got tough.” This kind of position taps into the deep frustration that many Democrats feel with their party in Congress and the president, and it’s very effective.

Bysiewicz did her best to undermine Murphy, sniping at his record and stressing what she saw as the major differences between them, but came up short. She’s been trying to find some space on Murphy’s left, and in this debate attacked him for voting against a bill that would have closed tax loopholes for corporations and for extending the Patriot Act (both of which appear to be true; though Murphy has also voted against some provisions of the Patriot Act). She reiterated her support for bringing home troops from Iraq and Afghanistan immediately several times, which is also something she seems to believe will put some space between her and Murphy. Murphy batted her criticisms away lightly (“I don’t know if there’s a fourth candidate here I don’t know about,” he joked), to the amusement of the crowd.

Bysiewicz desperately wants to be seen as an truth-telling outsider candidate; she lambasted the stimulus for not going far enough, implied that no one but her felt a sense of urgency about Iraq and Afghanistan, and suggested the real unemployment rate was near 20 percent. She’s doing her best to play the noble outsider while simultaneously distancing herself from her own scandal-plagued final term as Secretary of the State (a position in which she was one of Hartford’s consummate insiders), and it doesn’t quite ring true. Bysiewicz also seemed on edge in contrast to Murphy and Tong, she failed to really connect with the audience, and apart from the attacks on Murphy her performance was erratic and forgettable. Going negative so early is a dangerous game for a flawed candidate to play, and Bysiewicz is not playing it well.

Tong, on the other hand, continued to defy expectations by more than holding his own. Despite a somewhat shaky response to the first question, he recovered to use his own personal story as a way to connect with his audience. His family’s experiences provided the frame for his views on health care, the debt ceiling debate, paid sick leave, social security and Medicare, and tax policy. Weaving stories of his family and history is where he is strongest and most at ease, and where he showed real flashes of brilliance. He was lucky enough to have the final word and used it well, saying that when asked if he’s the underdog in the race, he answers, “You bet I am. Who in this room hasn’t been an underdog?” It was his best moment of the forum. Tong still has to fight just to be noticed in this field, but it’s easy to see why some people have compared him to Barack Obama (speaking of, the president wasn’t mentioned at all during the debate—a reminder of how quickly political fortunes can turn). He didn’t deliver a breakout performance, but he did very well.

The first debate was a mixed bag for the candidates. Bysiewicz hurt herself with the attacks more than she helped, though she may have raised at least a few doubts about Murphy. As for Murphy himself, he turned in a strong performance with plenty of red meat for frustrated liberals; he entered and left the debate as the front-runner. Tong was engaging and refreshingly low-key, stayed visible, but has yet to really emerge from the long shadows cast by the other two candidates. If this first debate is any indication, though, Democrats will have a compelling race to look forward to in 2012.

Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.