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In New York Governor's Race, Debates Still In Flux

Matt Ryan

New York Governor Cuomo has accepted two debate offers from media outlets, but neither format includes a one-on-one televised contest between the incumbent Democrat and his Republican opponent. GOP candidate Rob Astorino is objecting.

One of the debates would take place in Buffalo, sponsored by the Buffalo News and public television and radio stations WNED and WBFO.  It would include Governor Cuomo, Republican candidate Rob Astorino, the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins, and Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott.

The other debate, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and public radio station WNYC, would feature just Cuomo and Astorino and not be broadcast on television.

Other media outlets have offered a televised debate limited to just the major party candidates, but so far Governor Cuomo has not accepted.

Governor Cuomo had been asked about the possible debate schedule for weeks, and he gave a standard answer, saying the campaigns are talking.

“They’ll work out, which venue do you go to, what sponsor,” Cuomo said. “So there are a lot of technical decisions.”

Astorino, who was outmaneuvered by Cuomo, has responded angrily, saying there were no actual negotiations between the two campaigns.  And his campaign has not yet committed to the schedule accepted by Cuomo. Earlier, Astorino explained why he thinks at least one of the debates should feature a televised contest between himself and the Democratic candidate.  He says he means no “disrespect” to the minor party candidates, but says it’s likely that only the Democratic or Republican candidate will actually win the race.

“I would say one-on-one, Andrew Cuomo and I,” said Astorino. “Let’s talk about the issues, what we plan on doing, starting next year.”

The Cuomo campaign accused Astorino of contradicting himself, because the GOP candidate previously said that he would debate Cuomo “anytime, anywhere.”  The governor has not commented since accepting the two debates over the weekend.

Steve Greenberg, a political analyst and spokesman for Siena College polls, says there are good reasons, strategically, why an incumbent governor like Cuomo, who’s far ahead in the polls from his nearest opponent, would avoid appearing in a televised debate with just his major party challenger.  The format helps to elevate the opponent as an equal of the governor. Also, Greenberg says, any possible mistake the governor might make would be amplified.

“If Cuomo were to stumble in a significant way, and then that becomes campaign issue and it gets covered,” Greenberg said. “Could that have an effect? Yes.”

Meanwhile the Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, is making the case for a three-person televised debate, saying the Libertarian candidate should be excluded. Hawkins says the Green Party is the only other political party besides the Democrats and Republicans that consistently runs its own slate of candidates, and has received enough votes in past elections to automatically qualify to be on the ballot.

“We’re not raising the kind of money Cuomo is, but we’re raising enough money to put field staff out,” said Hawkins, who says he has a daily public campaign schedule.  “We’re running as serious a campaign as we can.”

Hawkins says ideally he would like to see an initial debate featuring all of the candidates on the ballot, and then ask the public to decide which candidates they’d like to see again in subsequent debates. Right now, though, that seems unlikely.

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