Published July 30. 2012 3:00PM Updated July 31. 2012 6:44PM
New London — Congressman Chris Murphy skirted most attacks by former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and focused on November's general election as the two Democrats vying for the U.S. Senate nomination debated Monday evening at the Garde Arts Center.
A small crowd turned out for the hourlong debate at the Garde, which featured questions from The Day's editorial page editor, Paul Choiniere, and WTNH's senior political correspondent, Mark Davis.
Bysiewicz, running on a campaign of fixing Wall Street, repeatedly claimed Murphy, the U.S. representative from the state's 5th District, is "too cozy" with Wall Street types and not willing to stand up for middle-class families.
The convention-endorsed Murphy called the attacks by Bysiewicz, which include what she admits is a false television ad, "a new low in Connecticut politics" and instead focused his attention on barbs against Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate leading the polls and Murphy's potential opponent in November's general election.
Bysiewicz's latest TV ad alleges Murphy's campaign has received the most hedge fund money of any Democratic congressman, a claim Murphy called false. And, Murphy said, when his campaign questioned the legitimacy of the claim and asked for it to be taken down, the Bysiewicz camp stood by it. Murphy called it "the most astonishing thing I've ever seen" from a campaign.
"I think the ad has done more damage to Susan Bysiewicz than to me," he said. "The voters turned on the TV and saw Susan Bysiewicz run a false ad they admit is not true and they saw us running a positive ad on job creation."
The ad premiered earlier this month, but Bysiewicz said about halfway through the debate that it has since been pulled from the air and that "we're clarifying it now."
Most of the debate centered around the ad and Bysiewicz's claims that Murphy does not support closing a "hedge fund loophole" that she said allows people like presidential candidate Mitt Romney and McMahon, the Republican Senate candidate, to pay a 15 percent tax rate on all income. Murphy did admit to voting to keep open the loophole in 2010 when the issue came up in a vote because the bill wasn't "strong enough to close the tax hole" and was too expensive. He said he'd voted against it three different times, and Murphy called Bysiewicz's assertion a "tired claim."
"He voted for it, and then voted to close it. That's just the game that's played in Washington," Bysiewicz said. "He voted to keep it open because it cost too much, but he also voted to raise the federal deficit. ... Being a budget hawk doesn't really ring true in this case."
While Bysiewicz swiped at Murphy, the congressman spent most of his answers attacking McMahon, the former WWE executive who is the presumptive front-runner over Christopher Shays, a former Fairfield County congressman, in the Republican race for the nomination.
On the topic of a potential new round of military base closings, Murphy said McMahon has "six different positions." Such closures could endanger the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and Murphy said "you'd have to be 100 percent opposed to BRAC in this state to support southeastern Connecticut."
The candidates found common ground on many other topics, with both agreeing on expediting the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, on finding places for defense cuts and fighting for clean elections.
But in closing, Murphy said the debate proved that while Bysiewicz was focused on him, he is focused on state residents.
Prior to the debate, supporters of both sides rallied outside the Garde on the corners of State and Huntington streets.
Murphy supporters included a group with a large sign reading "Carpenters for Murphy," a bullhorn and people in "I'm on Team Murphy" T-shirts. A smaller contingent of supporters for Bysiewicz were outside holding signs with her name.
The debate was the last between the candidates before the Aug. 14 primary. The winner of the general election will gain the seat currently held by Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring.