Democrats vying for Senate spar in wide-ranging debate

From the left, Democratic Senate candidates U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, state Rep. William Tong, Matthew Oakes, Lee Whitnum, and , former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, share a laugh during a debate in Storrs, Conn., Monday, April 9, 2012.  Five Democrats are vying for the party's endorsement in Connecticut's U.S. Senate race to ultimately fill the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent.
From the left, Democratic Senate candidates U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, state Rep. William Tong, Matthew Oakes, Lee Whitnum, and , former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, share a laugh during a debate in Storrs, Conn., Monday, April 9, 2012. Five Democrats are vying for the party's endorsement in Connecticut's U.S. Senate race to ultimately fill the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent. John Woike/The Hartford Courant pool photo

Storrs — The five Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate gave views on defense spending, troops in Afghanistan, hedge fund manager pay and the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran during a wide-ranging debate Monday at the University of Connecticut.

The roughly 45-minute event, sponsored by The Hartford Courant and Fox News Connecticut, lacked the fireworks and name-calling of last week's live debate, in which Lee Whitnum of Greenwich, a lesser-known candidate and vehement critic of Israel, called U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy a "whore" who "will do anything for the job."

Monday, Whitnum jabbed again at Murphy for a vote to support Israel but this time spared the salty language.

That left it up to former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz to deliver the hardest hit of the day to Murphy, a three-term Congressman who enjoys a strong lead in polls forecasting both the August primary and November election for the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Bysiewicz used her closing remarks to reiterate an accusation that Murphy bowed to Wall Street interests in 2010 when he joined Republicans and some Democrats in voting down legislation that would have curtailed the so-called "carried interest" benefit that allows hedge fund managers to pay a low 15-percent tax on earnings.

"I'll fight for you and not for Wall Street," Bysiewicz told the crowd.

Murphy did not respond to Bysiewicz's claim until after the debate, when he told reporters that he on three occasions voted to end the carried interest "loophole" and make fund managers pay higher taxes.

"I voted over and over again to close the loophole on carried interest. She knows what my position is on that issue," said Murphy, who represents the 5th Congressional District.

Murphy said he voted against a version of the bill, the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act, because it "spent about 50 billion more than it took in" and didn't generate enough new revenue, such as by discontinuing the Bush-era tax cuts.

Carried-interest disputes aside, Murphy, Bysiewicz and the other main candidate in the primary race — state Rep. William Tong of Stamford — expressed similar views on policy questions throughout the debate.

All three agreed that some defense spending cuts are necessary, and that reductions can be made without hurting the state's defense-sector jobs.

Murphy touted his bill, the 21st Century Buy American Act, which he said would give domestic manufacturers a stronger hand against foreign competitors for U.S. government contracts.

"We're going to have to pare down the size of our defense budget — there's no way around that," Murphy said. "But if we start spending those dollars here, we can protect Connecticut's economy."

Bysiewicz said the Pentagon could save money by closing some offshore bases that are Cold War relics, such as those in Germany. She also called for an immediate return home for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"They should have been home yesterday," she said.

Bysiewicz, Murphy, Tong and a fourth candidate, Matthew Oakes of East Hartford, said it's crucial that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons. But the candidates stopped short of advocating immediate military intervention, saying that sanctions and diplomacy need more time to work.

"It doesn't mean though that we can take military action off the table," Murphy said. "It should be an absolute last resort."

Whitnum, a former software engineer and fiction writer, has come off in recent debates as obsessed with Israel. She padded her response to almost every moderator question with harsh criticism of Israel. When asked the title of the most recent book she read, Whitnum replied, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt.

"It is the Bible to the cause that I represent," she said. "I highly recommend it for everyone. You will find yourself saying, 'Wow, now it makes sense.'"

The other candidates largely ignored Whitnum's comments about Israel during the debate. But Murphy criticized her later when fielding questions from reporters.

"Her continual insistence that Israel has something to do with Sept. 11 is over the line, and I let it go tonight so we wouldn't have a blow-up on stage," Murphy said.

"I don't fault Lee Whitnum for her opposition to the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan," Murphy added later. "But to suggest that Israel was somehow complicit in the decision of a handful of madmen to kill thousands of American civilians is simply over the line."

The debate was held in a darkened auditorium on the UConn campus. There were several dozen students in the audience, and university President Susan Herbst sat in the front row.

This year's Democratic nominating convention is May 12.

Meanwhile, former Congressman Chris Shays of Fairfield County and wrestling executive Linda McMahon of Greenwich are vying for the Republican party nomination.

State Rep. William Tong, left, and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy talk to the press following the debate of the Democratic candidates at Storrs Monday, April 9, 2012.
State Rep. William Tong, left, and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy talk to the press following the debate of the Democratic candidates at Storrs Monday, April 9, 2012. Jessica Hill/AP Photo
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