NEW YORK – On Thursday, this town stood at the center of America’s political universe.
Washington temporarily surrendered its title as the New York presidential primaries loom Tuesday, and the nation’s political focus homes in on the state – especially this metropolis.
What more could a committed voter – let alone a political junkie – ask for? Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debating on CNN in Brooklyn; Donald Trump, John Kasich and Ted Cruz addressing a glitzy state GOP gala at Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel.
Here in Manhattan, hundreds of reporters converged on the Hyatt’s main ballroom, where 800 of the state’s Republican elite streamed through intense security to hear the three candidates surviving in the GOP presidential sweepstakes. This is where this trio makes one of its last stands as the nation concentrates on the New York primary – one that matters for the first time in years.
And if the nation’s focus was trained on Trump to “see what he does,” he may have responded in a far different way from some of his more “bombastic” appearances. Oh, the New York billionaire bragged a bit about being “millions and millions of votes” ahead in the race for the GOP nomination. He couldn’t help himself.
And he boasted about building the Hyatt from the crumbling Commodore Hotel back in the 1970s, along with a host of other projects he wasn’t too timid to enumerate.
But Trump may have been his most serious self yet as he focused his speech on “New York values,” even as Cruz – who famously declared his contempt for New York values – sat in the audience before him.
While the Texas senator later described his version of New York values as those practiced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Trump dwelled on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the city’s heroic attitude in its aftermath.
“In our darkest hours, as a city, we showed the world the very, very best,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of police and firefighters who died attempting to rescue victims in the World Trade Center.
“Those are New York values,” he said, adding so too was the courage of the Rev. Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar and New York Fire Department chaplain who died ministering to the World Trade Center victims.
“He died praying and taking care of people,” Trump said.
Kasich, the Ohio governor, arrived in New York to real news. Former Gov. George E. Pataki provided him a much-needed boost by bestowing his endorsement, giving the Ohioan added hope of picking off a few votes in delegate-rich New York.
“Gov. Kasich is the only one who beats Hillary Clinton,” Pataki said, adding either of the other two candidates will end up “slaughtered” in November.
“America knows Hillary has not been honest with them and should not be president of this country,” the former governor said.
Pataki himself contested for the nomination early in the process, and then supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before he also dropped out.
Kasich then recited much of his standard stump speech, promising to help students deal with college debt, invest in medical research and balance the federal budget, and pointing to his job-creating record in Ohio. “Let’s have a party that helps people get out of poverty and not be stuck in poverty throughout this country,” Kasich said.
But the Ohio governor’s main focus was to emphasize his belief that he was the only one of the remaining candidates who could take on Clinton in the general election.
And while he never mentioned Trump, he clearly had the front-runner in mind. “If you feed on the negative attitudes of people, you’re going to have high negative ratings,” he said. “And you know what will happen if we nominate someone with high negative ratings.”
Cruz, the chief rival to Trump at this point, reiterated his usual themes. He promised to abolish Obamacare and the IRS, to stop amnesty, to secure the borders, to bring American jobs back from China and Mexico, and to again project American power around the world.
“If you wage war against the United States of America and you seek to murder innocent Americans,” he said, “we will not come to interrogate you or read you your rights. We are coming to kill you.”
And he promised to continue his fealty to strict interpretation of the Constitution, emphasizing the need to appoint like-minded judges to the Supreme Court.
But Cruz also emphasized that he is the only Republican left who can win the nomination and beat Clinton in November. “I will humbly submit that of those you have heard tonight, I am the only one who can win both the primary and the general election,” he said, describing his Democratic opponents as “a wild-eyed socialist with ideas dangerous for America and the world – and Bernie Sanders.”
Still, it was Trump who found himself under as much scrutiny as anyone in America on Thursday night. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the 2014 candidate governor eyeing another candidacy in 2018, may have summed it up best by noting that the nation is waiting to make its final judgement on Trump.
“People are still curious to see how he’s going to act and behave,” Astorino said, “and when he starts pivoting toward being presidential.”
After Trump’s effort to play the part on Thursday, Astorino’s question may have been answered.
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