With Three Debates Down, What From Here for Dem US Senate Candidates?

The NBC-Connecticut debate turned into a circus; the UConn debate was held in a dark hall and was a snooze; and the WFSB Channel 3 debate was somewhere in the middle. Three debates down and while there hasn’t been any serious disagreements or fireworks on issues, the three leading candidates and the other two candidates who have little chance are working hard to differentiate themselves from the others.

Sunday’s WFSB debate was very interesting to watch (to Channel 3’s great credit, the debate was streamed on WFSB.com. The powers that be should consider doing that every week with Face the State; or at least show it online later Sunday to protect the TV ratings). With some entertaining exceptions, the candidates stuck to their personal talking points.

US Rep. Chris Murphy is clearly the frontrunner and seems to be gaining confidence with every appearance. He’s comfortable, avoids gaffes, and even when he feels he must respond to criticism or straight-out whackiness from another candidate, he does so in a non-angry, nuanced and effortless manner.

Murphy has carved out a position that he is the only candidate who has actually done what everyone is talking about—health care reform, college education issues, housing, military issues such as bringing home troops from Afghanistan and others. (Full disclosure: Murphy was elected to the state Senate at the same time I joined that caucus as communications director so I worked closely with him for a number of years.)

Former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz is bright, competent (despite what candidate Lee Whitnum says) and a tenacious campaigner. Although it seemed that she wasn’t at her best in Sunday’s debate, she is framing herself as the true protector of the middle class. Wall Street is her favorite target, saying she wants to close hedge fund tax loop holes.

Bysiewicz comes dangerously close to taking credit for certain legislative action—she wasn’t in the legislature at the same and therefore could not vote. Sunday, she said she “fought for” the landmark campaign finance reform the General Assembly passed and Gov. Jodi Rell signed. As Secretary of State, she may have supported it, but by definition, she couldn’t have anything to do with actually passing it. I was in the middle of the passionate debate that was the campaign finance reform effort and I don’t remember the Secretary being very much involved. Nonetheless, her campaign is certainly for real and probably the biggest challenged to Murphy.

The Shad has been impressed with state Rep. William Tong on many levels. He is hanging his electoral hat on his personal story which is in fact, inspirational. He is proud to point out his parents came to this country with 57-cents, worked tirelessly is a Chinese restaurant and were eventually able to send their son to college and law school—the epitome of the American dream.

Meanwhile, candidate Lee Whitnum’s 15 minutes are up. While she didn’t use offensive language, in criticizing Israel, she called Murphy “Congressman Pollyanna” and that he is in the pocket of Israel; said that the US is doing the bidding of Benjamin Netanyahu; said Bysiewicz was “incompetent;” and asserted that US Sen. Joe Lieberman “should be tried for treason.” Those are her opinions and she is entitled to them. However, jumping ugly with the host is just plain rude. When Whitnum went off on another anti-Israeli rant unrelated to the question at hand, moderator and Face the State host Dennis House (a Shad favorite) simply asked her to “please answer the question.” Whitnum said she already did (she didn’t) and told House “don’t interrupt me again.” Wow. House has standing and credibility that Whitnum can only dream of. House of course, showed his professionalism by not engaging her. But it’s his show and she should know better.

Interestingly, Murphy had enough of Whitnum’s constant contention that terrorists attacked on 9-11 because they felt sympathy for the Palestinians and the way Israel treated them. He called Whitnum’s assertion “a lie.” Good for him.

This race is being watched nationwide and will get hotter as we get close to the nominating convention on May 12 and the likely primary on August 14. For political junkies (like The Shad), this is gold.