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Attorney general candidates make the most of freewheeling debate format

Officially, all 420 seats were taken Thursday evening for the only scheduled live television debate between State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and his Republican challenger, John Cahill.

But like an early-season baseball game, ticket reservations far exceeded the actual attendance. As airtime on Time Warner Cable approached, only a third of the seats were filled in the William E. Swan Auditorium at Hilbert College in Hamburg.

Note to the no-shows: you missed a wild throw-down.

Both candidates for the state’s top law enforcement office took liberties with what few rules there were in the freewheeling format.

They ran past their allotted speaking times. They traded accusations. They interrupted one another. And occasionally they erupted into heated bickering.

“Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” moderator Liz Benjamin, host of “Capital Tonight” on Time Warner Cable News, admonished the two of them insistently as one of their exchanges threatened to escalate out of control.

Nevertheless, amid all the fireworks, campaign issues were discussed, positions were explained and the candidates defined not only themselves, but each other.

Schneiderman, a state senator before he was elected state attorney general four years ago, reinforced his campaign ad messages about recouping $4 billion from errant banks, prosecuting drug gangs and pursuing more than 50 political corruption cases.

Cahill, who was secretary and chief of staff to former Gov. George E. Pataki, said he would be independent of the demands of politicians and political parties and aspired to no higher office.

Cahill affirmed that during a lightning round of questions when Benjamin asked both of them if they ever would run for governor, as former attorneys general Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo did.

“No,” Cahill said.

“It’s not on my mind right now,” Schneiderman responded.

Cahill wasted no time as the debate began in attacking Schneiderman. In his opening statement, he accused the incumbent of being too easy on Wall Street misdeeds, failing to challenge Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on sexual harassment issues and rubber-stamping Cuomo’s SAFE Act gun-control legislation.

Schneiderman, in turn, played both offense and defense. On one hand, he explained how he collaborated with gun show promoters to draw up sales regulations. On the other, he accused Cahill of distorting his record and offering no positive plans.

Struggling to get in questions was a panel of three reporters – Robert J. McCarthy of The Buffalo News; Errol Louis, host of “Inside City Hall” on New York City’s NY1 channel; and Laura Nahmias, Albany reporter for the publication Capital New York.

Cahill deflected Louis’ questions about whether his consulting work for energy firms was lobbying and if support for his campaign by the Koch Brothers would affect his decisions as attorney general.

Nahmias asked how they would approach the issues raised by the “sharing economy” companies like Airbnb and Uber.

“Are there issues?” Cahill said. “Yes, but there are enormous benefits.” He then accused Schneiderman of accepting $100,000 in campaign contributions from opponents of Airbnb while cracking down on the company.

The incumbent cited a New York City law on apartment rentals and said Airbnb at first refused to provide a required list of its clients. “The rule is ironclad,” he said.

McCarthy asked about how they would deal with the constitutional questions and public health concerns of the Ebola outbreak.

“There’s no measurable precedent for this,” Schneiderman said. “It has to be handled very carefully and should not discourage the health care workers from going to fight the disease.”

Cahill said he thought the Attorney General’s Office “should have a role,” and added, “I think Washington has made a mess of this.”

After summations, in which Schneiderman said that he “worked every day to make one set of rules for everyone” and Cahill contended that he is “willing to stand up to anybody,” the battle was over. They turned to each other one last time. And then they shook hands.

email: danderson@buffnews.com