HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The discussion of the issues in the latest Connecticut gubernatorial debate was overshadowed by the elephant who was not in the room — Republican candidate Tom Foley.
Foley didn't participate in Thursday's forum, which was sponsored by WVIT-TV, something the moderator reminded the audience of five times during the 60-minute forum.
Foley spokesman Mark McNulty said the campaign was unable to reach an agreement on the format for the forum. He said Foley instead was taping a segment for a Sunday talk show on rival station WFSB-TV. Foley's chair was removed from the debate stage at 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the debate began.
That left Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and conservative petitioning candidate Joe Visconti to debate issues including the economy, gun control and educational testing.
Malloy called Foley's decision not to participate disrespectful.
"He actually gave the people of Connecticut his word that he would enter into debates, now he reneged," Malloy said after the debate. "It's rather unusual for people even before they're in office to be breaking these kinds of promises."
McNulty called the assertion that Foley ducked the debate "hogwash." He pointed out that Foley already had participated in five forums with Malloy, and would be at the final debate on Nov. 2, the Sunday before the election.
"We're still answering questions," he said.
The forum gave Visconti, who was invited to just one other debate, an opportunity to increase his visibility. Originally a Republican candidate for governor, he had to submit the signatures of 10,000 registered voters to petition his way onto the Nov. 4 ballot.
The contractor from West Hartford told reporters he believes he can win. But he also said he's been getting tremendous pressure from high-level Republicans to withdraw from the race, even though recent polls have showed him pulling voters equally from both parties.
"They think that I'm going to be a spoiler," he said. "It's hard to sleep at night thinking about that, am I going to be a spoiler?"
He and Malloy clashed several times during the forum, especially on the economy and gun control.
Visconti warned that the state faces large projected budget deficits and must make hard choices when it comes to tax hikes and spending cuts. Visconti said he thinks the state will need tax increases and said he would put tolls at the state's borders.
He also called for cuts to the arts and other programs to ensure money is available for education, veterans and the disabled.
Malloy pointed to recent job-growth numbers in dismissing the dire projections, saying the economy is improving. The two also disagreed on the so-called Common Core education standards. Malloy said he would like less testing, but supports Common Core. Visconti said he would do away with it and would name former Democratic State. Rep. Jonathan Pelto, a fierce critic of both the program and Malloy, as his education commissioner.
The most emotional moments came again during a discussion of Connecticut's new gun law that was passed following the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012.
Visconti accused Malloy of holding hunters and other law-abiding gun owners responsible for the tragedy with the law that expanded the state's assault weapons ban, bans the future purchase of large-capacity magazines and requires people who already own those magazines to register them.
Malloy apologized for the inconvenience to law-abiding gun owners, but said the law makes children safer and he is proud of it.
"It wasn't an inconvenience, it was a constitutional infringement," Visconti shot back.
Visconti also chided Malloy for spending too much time focusing his remarks on Foley's positions while he was not in the room.
But Malloy used his closing remarks to make an unusual endorsement, while taking another swipe at Foley for not showing up.
"If you're (not) going to vote for me, at least vote for someone who actually tells you what they are going to do, and that's Joe Visconti," he said.