NBC allows GOP candidates to question each other. More please!!!

That’s more like it.

Political debates this year have really been forums. Whether they’re running for U.S. Senate or governor, the candidates all stand behind podiums or sit side-by-side at a table and field questions from the moderator or moderators, hardly ever acknowledging their opponents.

Very polite. Very boring.

But tonight NBC Connecticut in the final ten or so minutes of the televised hour-long Republican gubernatorial debate allowed the three candidates to question each other.

The candidates are: GOP nominee Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, former ambassador to Ireland; Lt. Governor Michael Fedele, a Stamford businessman; and Simsbury businessman Oz Griebel, former chairman of the state Transportation Strategy Board. The three face off in a party primary August 10.

Fedele went first. If elected he said he will veto any budgets that contain tax hikes. Griebel has said taxes and other forms of revenue like highway tolls are on the table. “Why?” asked Fedele.

“I am first and foremost about getting spending under control,” Griebel said. That includes restructuring government to make it smaller but more responsive, he said.

Turning to Foley, Fedele said he gets worried when the Republican nominee talks about treating Connecticut the way he has his companies.

“On your watch you’ve driven the biggest textile mill in America … straight into bankruptcy,” Fedele said, referring to the Bibb Corp. in Georgia. Foley purchased Bibb in 1985 and it went bankrupt 11 years later.

“The challenge of fixing broken business is very demanding and often doesn’t work out as you hoped it would,” Foley said, adding: “I learned a lot about crisis management and about managing a large organization under financial stress … I think the Bibb experience will make me a better governor of Connecticut if elected.”

Then it was Foley’s turn. He said Fedele, who was tapped by retiring Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell as her running mate in 2006, is a Hartford insider and part of an administration that has allowed the Democratic majority legislature to pass tax hikes.

“The voters I’m talking to are clearly looking for change in direction and want a strong leader who will cut government spending and end game playing in Hartford,” Foley said to Fedele. “Given your record as a ‘Hartford insider’ … why should voters trust you to change your colors?”

“When you were in Ireland being ambassador you weren’t paying focus on what was going on here in Connecticut,” Fedele shot back. He said as lieutenant governor he has no power to veto budgets with tax increases and reiterated his pledge to do so if he succeeds Rell.

Foley turned to Griebel and similarly portrayed him as a Hartford insider who is mainly focused on issues in that region of the state.

“If elected governor I’ll represent all the citizens of Connecticut regardless of where they are from,” Foley said. “How can people outside of Hartford know you won’t just look after Hartford and your friends here?”

Griebel, a former Bank of Boston executive, said his experiences working in offices in New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury, as well as his time chairing the Transportation Strategy Board, helped him to establish good relationships with business and political leaders around Connecticut and he will “represent all 3.6 million people extremely well.”

Griebel’s first question was to Fedele and, like Foley, he wondered what the lieutenant governor will do differently if he is elected to replace his current boss, noting Rell is leaving her successor to deal with an estimated $3 billion deficit and high unemployment. Fedele also said he believes Rell recently mismanaged the now well-publicized departure of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie.

Fedele said as governor he will have more power to execute his plans and craft budgets. But he also made a comment that could be taken as a shot at Rell and/or Lisa Moody, her powerful chief-of-staff.

“I will have commissioners that will have the ability to make decisions, to execute on decisions,” Fedele said. Critics have long charged that with Moody as part of the administration commissioners have had little freedom to do their jobs. And Fedele and Moody have not had the best relationship.

Griebel then turned to Foley and asked whether he believes it is important for the candidates and the next governor to be transparent. Griebel and Fedele pounced a few weeks ago on published reports that Foley was twice arrested – once in 1981 and once in 1993 – and demanded the candidate provide additional details about the incidents. Neither was prosecuted, and in one case the court sealed the records. In the other records are no longer available.

The arrests came to light because Foley’s ex-wife a few years ago cited them in a letter to then-Republican Gov. John Rowland as reasons her estranged husband should not be appointed to a state commission examining Connecticut’s divorce and child custody laws.

Foley told Griebel the issue has been “overblown” and resulted in “ridiculous and sundry accusations, by your campaign in one case.”

“I really didn’t expect unfortunate and highly personal matters such as a difficult divorce would become cannon fodder to be used against me, particularly by opponents of my own party,” Foley said. “In both instances these were things that were dropped and eventually came to nothing … One of the things I hope to bring to Connecticut politics is a more constructive, positive discourse and avoid personal attacks on opponents.”

That’s great, Tom. But I hope more debate sponsors allow candidates to question each other, be it over policy or personal matters.

Brian Lockhart