NORWICH—State Rep. William Tong and former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz tried to bloody U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy during their first formal debate for the U.S. Senate seat Saturday.

But Murphy, the frontrunner in both fundraising and endorsements, didn’t fight back by attacking their records. He was, however, quick to defend his own.

“I don’t think Democrats want us to be sniping at each other,” Murphy said at the end of the debate. “I’ve tended to win races because I’ve taken the high road and that’s going to be my approach in this race. I understand that these guys believe they can only win by tearing me down. I just don‘t think that‘s my path to victory.”

Murphy’s statement a few weeks ago that he would like to avoid a primary may have invited the attacks from his fellow Democrats.

“I don’t mind that I’m the one who is going to receive the brunt of the attacks tonight, but that one’s just not true,” Murphy said in response to a familiar attack from Tong.

Tong claimed: “I’m the only candidate on this stage who over the last five years has written and passed legislation that is now the law of this state, that is helping Connecticut families right now.”

Tong said Murphy and Bysiewicz continue to talk about their time in the legislature and bills they passed “way back when.”

Tong also argued that Bysiewicz and Murphy were career politicians.

“There’s only one candidate on this stage whose have a meaningful career outside of elective office… Only one candidate on stage, myself not one generation removed, I’ve worked side by side with my parents restaurant. I struggled with them to survive,” Tong said. 

Ray Hackett, editorial page editor of the Norwich Bulletin who moderated the debate, said Tong has a point.

Bysiewicz responded by pointing out she has spent 12 years as an attorney in private practice, has raised three teenagers, and grew up on a farm in Middletown. However, she didn’t shy away from defending her two decades in public office. She touted that fact that she ran a large public agency of 110 employees, which due to attrition was down to 80 employees when she left.

Murphy also didn’t back away from his record of public service.

“You know what I don’t apologize for my public service,” Murphy said.

Murphy recalled that when he graduated from college he returned home to find out he was being represented by the leader of the anti-gay, anti-woman rights group in Hartford. He decided if no one else was going to run against him, then he was going to do it. After several years in the state Senate, when no one else wanted to run against U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, who was backing the war and “selling off our health care system to the highest bidder,“ Murphy said he again raised his hand.

“I don’t doubt William has worked hard in his life, so has Susan, so have I,” Murphy, the three-term Congressman, said. “No one has handed me anything in my life, certainly not the opportunity to serve.”

“If pride of public service is a disqualification for office then none of us should be sitting here today,” Murphy said. “I see my public service as a strength, not a weakness in this race.”

Each talked about why they would be the better candidate to beat Republican Linda McMahon, who they believe will win the primary against former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, and a handful of other Republican candidates.

“What I think is that this party has to get together as quickly as possible behind a nominee and how that happens is not my decision,“ Murphy said. “What I believe is Linda McMahon is going to be the candidate and she ultimately is going to have $50 million to spend.“

“I may be up on Linda McMahon by a couple of points in the polls today,” Murphy said. “But I’m still going to run a race like I’m 20 points behind.”

Bysiewicz bristled at the notion that the party should rally behind one candidate and avoid a primary, as suggested by Murphy.

“Participation and giving voters the most choices is the best for our democracy,” Bysiewicz said.

It was no surprise that Tong said he too supports a primary.

“I don’t think anyone of us is entitled to be the next U.S. Senator,” Tong said. “I don’t think it’s the next natural step for anybody. I don‘t think it‘s anybody‘s turn.”

The debate was sponsored by the Norwich Bulletin and it was held at the Norwich Free Academy, Hackett said they handed out 440 tickets to the event, but the theater was not packed.

The Republican candidates will debate April 19 in the same location.