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Hartford - The Republican primary for governor took on a feisty tone Thursday, with candidates Tom Foley and John McKinney sparring in a debate over who is a political insider and who is best equipped to fix Connecticut's budget problems, including limiting spending.
The tenor of the televised match-up, sponsored by The Hartford Courant and WTIC-TV, was a marked difference from a recent forum where the two Fairfield Republicans appeared congenial and agreed on many issues. Following the state GOP convention in May, both had agreed not to attack the other during the primary campaign.
But the political rhetoric has begun to ramp up as the Aug. 12 primary nears.
McKinney has been running a TV ad claiming he's the only candidate in the election, including Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, willing to cut state spending. The spot includes a clip of Foley saying, "I'm not going to cut spending." Foley, who contends he would keep state spending level for two years, has since fired back with a new campaign ad that lumps McKinney with Malloy, calling them "career politicians, insiders, using worn-out policies that cost jobs and hurt the economy."
Much of Thursday's debate focused on Connecticut's economy, a key issue in this year's election. Despite new figures showing the unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent from 6.9 percent in May, the lowest since December 2008, both Republicans pointed out how it's still higher than the U.S. rate of 6.1 percent and more needs to be done to stimulate job creation.
"First and foremost, we need to get control over our spending. We simply are spending too much. It's raising the cost of living. It's driving employers out of the state," said Foley, who pledged to cut taxes. He accused McKinney of supporting higher taxes, including on gas, during his 15 years in the General Assembly.
"He's part of the problem," Foley said. "The same old shop-worn, tired policies that aren't going to work for Connecticut."
But McKinney said that as a Republican legislative leader, he has presented five alternative, minority-party budgets that shrunk the size of state government and didn't increase taxes.
"I don't even know if Tom has read the state budget, much less put one together," said McKinney, adding how Foley's budget would not pare back past spending increases imposed by Malloy and the state legislature's majority Democrats.
McKinney took issue with Foley, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 2006-09, calling him an insider.
"I've been in the legislature, working hard for real people across the state of Connecticut," he said, describing Foley as a wealthy businessman who raised contributions for politicians "with the hopes that there's an ambassadorship at the end of the rainbow."
After the debate, Foley said he was surprised by McKinney's criticism of his ambassadorship.
"I was very proud to serve my country overseas. He made it sound like it was a political payoff. Actually, ambassadors work quite hard for their country and there are many challenges they face overseas," said Foley, who also served as an adviser in Iraq. "I'm surprised he would be taking me on for my service."