Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz attacked U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy’s record in Congress. State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, talked about his upbringing, and Murphy defended his record and promised not to run away from progressive goals at a Working Families Party forum Saturday.

It didn’t take longer than the first question about closing tax loopholes for the Democratic candidates to stake out their nuanced positions.

“Despite an enormous amount of pressure at the end of last year to support an extension of the Bush tax cuts, I proudly voted no,” Murphy said. “And despite a similar amount of political pressure to support this slap dash backwards debt deal from 30 days ago, I voted no.”

Murphy touted his progressive credentials to a progressive crowd Saturday at the Polish National Home in Hartford.

“So long as the 400 top income earners in this nation are paying an average marginal rate of 16 percent, nearly half of what working families are paying out there, I’m never going to support a solution to a balanced budget or the reduction of the debt going forward that doesn’t ask for any balanced approach,” Murphy said.

But he said Democrats fall short when they don’t tell the public why they want to raise their taxes. He said he wants to tell people what he wants to do with the additional tax revenue and why government should be viewed as a partner and not the enemy.

As the only candidate with a record in Congress and the perceived frontrunner, Murphy is likely to be on the defensive as the campaign for U.S. Senate gets underway.

“My record is my record. I’ve gone to the mat over and over again to vote to strip tax breaks away from hedge fund managers, from millionaires, from oil companies,” Murphy said.

Bysiewicz saw the statement as her first opportunity to pounce.

“Chris Murphy, with respect, didn’t answer the question,” Bysiewicz alleged.

She said Murphy voted against closing a tax loophole buried in a bill back in 2010.

“That is not a progressive decision and not a progressive vote and you’re right, Warren Buffet is right, Congress is standing up for millionaires and billionaires,” Bysiewicz said.

Urania Petit, who was moderating the debate, reminded the candidates after Bysiewicz’s answer not to respond to their opponents.

The bill Bysiewicz was referring to was the 433-page American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act , which primarily extended unemployment compensation before being amended to offer tax breaks to specific populations. It changes the tax treatment of carried interest which is the main source of income for hedge fund managers.

At his first opportunity to speak again after Bysiewicz’s accusation, Murphy said, “I’ll stick to the rules and answer this question rather than responding.”

He talked about why he voted against the recent debt deal and how it could “end the social safety net,” that includes Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.

“The cruelest cuts that the Republicans have proposed are to Medicaid because they don’t think it has a powerful constituency,” Murphy said. “I will lead that fight in Washington.”

As Murphy talked Bysiewicz looked down at her papers and off in the distance.

When Tong talked, mostly about his family, including his grandparents who live in senior housing, Bysiewicz leaned back in her chair and looked up as he spoke.

“What was so disturbing about the debt ceiling debate was that I knew if we went to default and the federal government was unable to pay Social Security checks, unable to meet its commitments then my grandparents would have to go without a check,” Tong said. “I knew they couldn’t do that.”

During his closing remarks, Murphy wondered if maybe there was a fourth candidate in the room that he didn’t know about because the characterization of his record by Bysiewicz was off the mark.

“All I know is that I don’t think there’s anybody stronger in Washington on the issue of bringing our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq than I’ve been for the last two years,” Murphy said. “I voted against the extension of the Patriot Act, and I put my political career on the line over and over again for a fair tax system, for a government investment in our economy, and for a fair health care system.”

In her closing remarks, Bysiewicz said this 2012 Senate campaign is the first time in 32 years, the state will have an opportunity “as a state to have a conversation about who will be a progressive advocate for our state in the United States Senate.”

It’s unclear what she thought of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s campaign for Senate in 2010.

“There are some very fundamental differences, whether it’s on the war then I am the person who feels very, very strongly that we need to bring our young people back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bysiewicz said. “When we are losing more people in war zones to deaths from suicide than to deaths in combat,  you know something is wrong and it is time to bring our young people home. And others may not feel that sense of urgency.”

In his closing remarks, Tong said he didn’t believe there was a lot of difference between the three candidates, aside from their character.

“I’m not a congressmen. I’m not a household name, but I’ve had to fight for most things in my life,” Tong said. “I am probably the most unlikely of these three candidates to stand here today. But what you can be sure of, is you will get a U.S. Senator with some fight, and some grit.” 

The 50-minute debate drew applause for all three of the candidates at various times. Petit said former Congressman Chris Shays, one of two Republicans in the race, was also invited to attend, but they were unable to reach him at his home in Maryland. Brian K. Hill the other Republican who has announced his intention to run for the seat was not invited because the Working Families Party said they didn’t know he was a candidate.