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Extreme? Cuomo, Astorino vie for rhetorical edge

To hear the two major candidates describe each other, in their debate Wednesday night as well as on the campaign trail, this year’s race for governor is all about their opponent’s extremist and radical views on the far edge of the political spectrum.

According to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Republican challenger Rob Astorino represents an “ultraconservative” GOP that threatens long-established abortion rights and other social programs.

Astorino labels Cuomo as an incumbent with “radical” views on abortion and characterizes him as an instrument of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his liberal agenda.

It all adds up to an emotional pitch that ventures far afield from the traditional economic concerns of most New Yorkers. And it sets a campaign tone that Jacob Neiheisel, assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, said New York voters can now expect to see play out on the state’s airwaves.

“Ads are all message-tested,” he said. “These things are thought through. And advertising is an emotional medium in which symbols – words like liberal and conservative – can play a role.”

Neiheisel said his research shows that exposure to words such as “liberal” can have a negative effect on how politicians are viewed, while “conservative” can take on a positive overtone, especially in fiscal matters – even if only to a minimal degree.

But now Cuomo uses terms such as “ultraconservative” and “hyperconservative,” even though not always so critical of a concept. During a start to his four-year term that many observers viewed as “moderate,” he curbed state salaries and capped property taxes, often cooperating with Senate Republicans.

As late as after this year’s State of the State message, Senate Republican Leader Dean G. Skelos of Nassau County said Cuomo sounded like a “good moderate Republican” with plans for tax cuts and economic development.

Astorino says Cuomo’s endorsement by the labor-backed Working Families Party earlier this year changed that.

“He publicly agreed to a high-tax, more-spending agenda,” Astorino contends. “It’s a New York City radical agenda he would like to spread across New York State. It’s all in exchange for their line.”

The governor has been veering leftward on social issues as early as 2011 and also ramping up the volume on previously stated positions. He has turned left on gun control with his SAFE Act and on the Dream Act, which would provide financial aid to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Cuomo also sought and won in his re-election campaign the line of the Working Families Party, with his promise to help Democrats take over full control of the Senate, giving New York City Democrats a stronger voice in Albany. Examples of where he previously staked out liberal positions but has turned up the volume in the last couple of years are support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Cuomo also formed a new minor-party line this year, called Women’s Equality, which supports expanded access to abortion along with other measures of the Women’s Equality Act sponsored by the Democrats in the State Senate and Assembly.

In January, Cuomo set the stage for his assault on the right wing of the political spectrum by saying it was not welcome in New York. Though he is careful to deny using the word “extremist” to describe his political foes, he did label them “extreme” in a radio interview that month.

“Extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay … have no place in the State of New York,” he said then.

Cuomo also left no doubt about the course of the campaign on the day after his Democratic primary victory when he told a Buffalo rally that he must deal with an “ultraconservative movement that wants to take over the State of New York.” He predicted his Republican opponents would cut health care programs, curtail after-school care, oppose same-sex marriage, and roll back abortion rights gained in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“These hyperconservatives, you cannot participate with in a democracy,” he said, referring especially to Republicans in Congress. “It’s their way or the highway. That’s what we’re dealing with in November.”

Cuomo told The Buffalo News he believes that most New Yorkers support abortion rights or “reasonable gun control.” He also thinks his support for same-sex marriage reflects a growing acceptance of gay rights.

Astorino, meanwhile, rejects any suggestion that his views are extreme. He contends that while New Yorkers may support the right to abortion, they do not condone late-term abortions that could be authorized under the “10th point” of Cuomo’s proposed Women’s Equality Act.

“We can have an honest debate about abortion, but just about everyone agrees that’s out of line,” Astorino said, adding the measure would also allow non-doctors to perform the procedure.

While supporters of the bill say that it simply would bring New York’s abortion laws into line with federal law as defined by Roe v. Wade, critics maintain that it allows for termination of pregnancies right up until birth under a liberal interpretation of provisions aiming to “protect the life or health” of the mother.

Astorino is far from reacting defensively to Cuomo’s barbs. He is launching his own attack accusing Cuomo of embracing the liberal agenda set in New York City since de Blasio’s election last year.

“The governor is now beholden to Bill de Blasio and the New York City agenda in his second term,” Astorino said in an interview. “That’s the worst thing to happen to Western New York.

“The regulatory climate will get even worse, and it makes it that much harder to stay in Buffalo,” he added.

Astorino, the Westchester County executive, said his opponent’s insistence that the state has no place for “extreme conservatives” reflects an “elitist New York City attitude … pervasive in the upper echelons of Manhattan.”

“That’s inappropriate, and he needs to apologize to the good people of New York who disagree,” Astorino said.

Neiheisel believes that rhetoric categorizing an opponent as extreme ultimately aims to appeal to political centrists, which most voters consider themselves.

“Most voters think of themselves as middle of the road,” he said. “The ‘independent’ label is incredibly popular, even if they really don’t think in those terms.”