With Sen. Charles E. Schumer riding far ahead in the polls and the fund-raising circuit, his two little-known opponents sought to dent him a bit in the one and only debate held upstate during a Senate campaign that has been flying far below the radar screen.
But throughout the one-hour debate Tuesday night at Cornell University, a smiling Schumer declined to engage his opponents, ignoring charges on everything from not doing enough to get anti-terrorism money for New York to making it harder for flu vaccine manufacturers to operate in the United States.
"Sen. Schumer has demonstrated he is very good at keeping to script," said a clearly frustrated Howard Mills, the Republican candidate who tried repeatedly, without success, to smoke Schumer out from his ignore-the-rearview-mirror style of campaigning.
In between the two major party candidates was Dr. Marilyn O'Grady, the Conservative Party candidate, who sought to burnish her right-of-center credentials on abortion, same-sex marriage, taxes, and illegal immigration. "You can send a message," she implored.
The Cornell debate was the second and final one of the campaign; the first was Sunday in Manhattan, at which Schumer, flirting with a 2006 gubernatorial run, would not commit to serving his full Senate term if he's re-elected.
In his first Senate run in 1998, Schumer wanted nearly a dozen debates. Now exceeding 60 percent in polls, Schumer would agree to just two debates this fall, and he declined Mills' earlier insistence that just the two major party candidates go head-to-head, insisting that O'Grady, a steady critic of Mills, join the sessions.
Though Mills wanted more debates upstate, where Republicans run stronger, Schumer said no; in fact, while Tuesday's one-hour meeting was upstate, it took place in Ithaca, one of the nation's most liberal cities where someone could take all day trying to find a lawn sign for a Republican candidate for any office.
With all political eyes focused on the close presidential contest, not to mention a New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox playoff game, television viewership of the debate was expected to be minimal. It was shown on some public TV stations and cable stations owned by Time Warner, which sponsored the debate along with Cornell and the state League of Women Voters.
The questioning from two Cornell students, whether by design or not, elicited little in the way of controversy or candidate squabbling. Instead, the students queried the candidates on a range of topical, if largely anticipated, questions. It left Schumer and Mills, again, agreeing that marriage should be left between a man and woman but favoring civil unions, with O'Grady pressing for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. It left all three voicing support for the war in Iraq as a vehicle to fight terrorism.
And it left room for such lines as, from Schumer, "I love the farmers. They're great."
Mills fought to portray Schumer as successful more at glowing rhetoric and taking credit for things he didn't propose than for actually passing legislation in his six years in the Senate.
Schumer was attacked for his role in blocking judicial nominations by President Bush; Mills said Schumer denies Bush "the basic fairness" of straight up or down votes on some nominees. But Schumer said he backed 195 out of 214 nominees for the bench. He added, however, that Bush has "nominated some very extreme people," such as a judge he claimed opposed labor laws. "I will stand in the way of these extremists and I'm glad that I have done so."