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Only one debate in governor race – and Buffalo is center stage

Voters across New York State tonight finally get a chance to see all four candidates for governor square off in a debate taking place in Buffalo. And it will be the campaign’s only debate.

Democratic incumbent Andrew M. Cuomo, Republican challenger Rob Astorino and two minor-party candidates will take center stage in a campaign that so far has failed to capture the attention of many voters.

The Buffalo News and WNED-WBFO are co-sponsoring the hourlong debate, which airs at 8 p.m. on Channel 17, WBFO-FM 88.7 and BuffaloNews.com.

It also will air across upstate and New York City via the PBS and NPR networks.

Those who advocate debates as an essential part of the electoral process are pleased that the 2014 gubernatorial campaign will feature at least one, even if some do not like the details.

“In a debate, they have to respond to each other and to questions asked, even if they sometimes try to skirt the issues,” said Joan T. Parks, president of the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara. “It’s especially needed because of the way things are done today, with 30- and 60-second TV ads or glitzy campaign fliers that don’t address the issues.”

The participants – including Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins and Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott – will be asked to provide one-minute answers to questions and then be given 30 seconds for follow-up questions.

Accompanying the candidates will be reporters from across the state, descending on downtown Buffalo at the WNED-TV studio.

“Spin rooms” will allow representatives from all four campaigns to speak with reporters and advance their best points.

The GOP corner is expected to feature Erie County Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, political consultant Michael R. Caputo, and 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino.

And the Internet will hum with emails and blogs from the various campaigns, even as the event unfolds, with commentary and “fact-checking.”

Before the debate starts, Cuomo supporters will rally on his behalf outside Channel 17 at 6 p.m., while a coalition of people who oppose the gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, plans to march with signs and banners beginning at 6:30.

Hawkins said he will be sure to address the fracking controversy during the debate.

Tonight’s event, though, was preceded by a “debate about the debate.”

Astorino, the Westchester County executive, consistently called for several televised one-on-one debates with Cuomo.

As recently as Tuesday morning, he was complaining about how the Buffalo debate came about, contending that he had little say about the format or who was going to participate.

“Cuomo dictated the terms,” he said on WGDJ, an Albany radio station.

A radio-only debate also was scheduled for WNYC in New York City, but Astorino nixed participation in that because of his demand for a one-on-one televised event.

Only Cuomo seems satisfied with the format and number of debates.

“Gov. Cuomo is looking forward to a robust discussion of ideas … and we want to thank the sponsors for making these events possible,” Cuomo campaign spokesman Matt Wing said in accepting the invitation to the Buffalo event earlier this month.

WBFO News Director Brian Meyer will serve as moderator on a panel of reporters from The News, NPR-Albany and the New York Daily News before a live audience at WNED.

Many observers hope that tonight’s debate proves more successful than the last gubernatorial debate in 2010, when Cuomo, Republican candidate Carl P. Paladino of Buffalo and five minor candidates (including Jimmy “Papa Smurf” McMillan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party) gathered at Hofstra University on Long Island. That event was largely panned for its unwieldiness and inability to concentrate on the two main contenders over a 90-minute format.

Still, this debate is part of tradition of such spectacles from the early years of the republic (think Lincoln and Douglas in 1858, for instance). And for those with years of experience in staging debates as a public service, such as Ted Lina of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, few events in a campaign rank so high in importance.

Lina, whose Advanced Placement government class has hosted debates at the private high school in the Town of Tonawanda since 1985, says his students have learned to look beyond TV ads or campaign fliers.

“Our students come back from the debates with opinions based on debating ability, and not from the money spent on a campaign,” he said. “The average person is not familiar with the issues, speaking ability, or the ability to debate. So it’s enlightening.”

Other memorable statewide debates originating in Buffalo included the one in 2000 between Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton against Republican Rick Lazio for the U.S. Senate, and Democrat Eliot L. Spitzer versus Republican John J. Faso for governor in 2006.

Many political observers chalk up the 2000 Clinton-Lazio debate (moderated by the late Tim Russert of NBC) as one of the key events of that campaign, drawing sympathy for the then-first lady when Lazio approached her lectern and asked her to sign a pledge. She also was humanized before many viewers when questioned about her “vast right-wing conspiracy” remarks in connection with the scandal surrounding the personal behavior of her husband, President Bill Clinton, in the White House.

The 2006 Spitzer-Faso debate remains largely forgotten because it was not seen in all parts of the state and occurred on the same October night that Western New Yorkers were coping with the massive, destructive “October Surprise” snowstorm.

Prior to the Buffalo event, Spitzer and Faso also debated at Cornell University in Ithaca, the first one-on-one gubernatorial debate since 1982 in an era when incumbents have either rejected such events or insisted on a host of minor-party candidates.

Green Party candidate Hawkins, who participated in the 2010 debate, has also criticized how the 2014 event developed.

“There has been too much deference to the candidates in the way the debates were set up,” he said. “If we went to publicly financed campaigns, there would be publicly organized debates – another advantage.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com