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Analysis: Astorino vs. Cuomo provides test of wills

ALBANY – Through all the tit-for-tat moments and claims and counterclaims by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Rob Astorino, Wednesday’s night debate in Buffalo will not be recalled for causing any implosions in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

That Cuomo and Astorino will not be friends after Nov. 4 was cemented by the nonstop ways in which they, from their opening statements, used their limited time on camera in the 60-minute debate to go after each other.

About the only thing they had in common was that they both chose to wear red ties for the debate.

Still, there were some takeaways from the debate, sponsored by The Buffalo News and WNED-WBFO, in which the governor sought to appeal to voters to stay the course while Astorino tried to highlight the plight of an unhealthy New York State.

Applying the typical yardstick used by the media to assess debate performance, Cuomo did not lose his cool or make any major missteps. It’s no secret that Cuomo can get angry in private. Yet, try as Astorino did, he could not get the rise out of Cuomo that he may have wanted.

Astorino, right next to Cuomo, pointed at him, thrust his thumb in his direction and at one point asked the governor to raise his right hand and “swear” that he has not been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors looking into his closure of an anti-corruption panel.

Astorino did not stop there: He said Cuomo has taken big donations after giving away tax breaks to monied interests, has “radical” abortion views, oversees a “cesspool of corruption,” and that, as county executive of Westchester County, where Cuomo lives, the governor “should be thanking me” for cutting his local taxes.

Cuomo had a brief ready response: “Rhetoric is fine; facts are better,” he said.

“I think it was Cuomo’s to lose and he seemed to have held steady. I don’t know if he exceeded expectations by any stretch of the imagination,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo.

Astorino tried to swipe away Cuomo’s characterization of him as an “ultraconservative” and holder of positions “disrespectful” to New Yorkers on issues including abortion, gay marriage and immigration.

Astorino, at the end speaking briefly in fluent Spanish, talked of his support among blacks and Latinos, “Shame on Gov. Cuomo for playing the race card,” he said, later urging voters not to listen to “his nonsense.”

The Republican reached out to Democrats, who helped him win twice in Democrat-rich Westchester County. He tried to portray Cuomo as the protector of the “privileged” class in New York. And he talked of the need for more aid for public schools.

“He seemed like he was running to the center,” Neiheisel said of Astorino.

The Green Party’s Howie Hawkins spent the night reaching out to New York’s liberals, calling for full employment programs, higher wages, public campaign financing, proportional representation in the State Legislature and a ban on fracking ban.

By having Hawkins and Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott in the debate, Cuomo hoped to minimize face time for Astorino and his barbs. But it also gave Hawkins, who in a new poll is capturing 9 percent of support from likely voters, an opportunity to score points with liberals who may feel disenfranchised, like those who backed Zephyr Teachout in the September Democratic gubernatorial primary.

While Hawkins can’t win, he could, after Wednesday’s performance, steal enough votes from Cuomo in two weeks to make Cuomo’s expected margin of victory less than pollsters have been predicting. That might not matter on the broader scale anymore; Cuomo pledged Wednesday to serve a full term, which would, if true, seem to end chatter about a White House bid for him in 2016 if Hilllary Rodham Clinton does not run.

Voters who chose the debate over the World Series or other programming did, at least, see stark policy differences between Cuomo and Astorino. They disagreed on tax policies, on how to create jobs, on the Common Core, on fracking, on the wisdom of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program. About all they appeared to agree on was opposition to legalization of recreational marijuana use and hesitation about using state money for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.

And, throughout the evening, they questioned each other’s integrity. “There’s only one person here who has a criminal defense team,” Astorino said to Cuomo in a reference to a federal probe over the disbanding of the Moreland Commission, which was looking into public corruption. When it was his turn, Cuomo went after Astorino for a federal lawsuit over alleged housing discrimination in Westchester County.

“This truly is outrageous,” Cuomo said after one Astorino accusation.

Astorino tried throughout the night to undermine Cuomo’s economic rebirth claims, pointing to high poverty rates in places like Buffalo, and what he tried to characterize as job creation policies that give out big tax credits to favored corporations that then give “very big checks” to Cuomo’s campaign account. “That’s bad economic policy,” Astorino said.

The state, Cuomo countered, is “better off” under his watch by the creation of more than 500,000 new jobs. He said New York is also “stronger, safer and it’s more progressive.”

That the upstate vote is important in the race was made clear by Cuomo in his opening and closing remarks. He started off with a quick back-slap for himself for helping to keep the Buffalo Bills from leaving and concluded by saying how he ended the days when “a downstate mentality” ran the Capitol and did not look out for the interests of upstate.

In between, he locked himself in with pledges such as not raising Thruway tolls during a second term.

Astorino countered that New York cannot afford another 400,000 New Yorkers leaving during the next four years as they have since 2010 and that New York still has more than 600,000 unemployed residents.

He said that he, unlike Cuomo, move quickly to create jobs upstate by approving natural gas fracking. “I won’t be politically paralyzed like this governor,” Astorino said.