Cuomo-Molinaro debate: 5 takeaways

What you need to know from the first and only debate between Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Republican opponent, Marcus Molinaro
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and challenger Marc Molinaro
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and challenger Marc Molinaro

NEW YORK — It finally happened: After days of back-and-forth over who was too afraid to face whom, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his Republican challenger, Marcus J. Molinaro, squared off on Tuesday in their first and likely only debate.

But if you left the debate feeling unenlightened about the candidates’ visions for New York, you’re probably not alone. The debate, full of ad hominem attacks and calculated evasions, was a lot to digest — or sometimes even to listen to, as Cuomo and Molinaro jockeyed to be heard over the other’s interruptions.

That’s why we broke down what happened, why it happened and what the effect, if any, could be in the two weeks remaining before Election Day.

It got ugly, and fast

Considering it was only an hour, and was perhaps Molinaro’s best chance to make a dent in the governor’s substantial lead in the polls, it wasn’t surprising that he wanted to go quickly on the attack. He accused the governor of leading “the most corrupted state government in America” and of being “born on third base.”

But Cuomo was just as combative, turning accusations of pay-to-play right back on Molinaro, and, when he wasn’t outright interrupting Molinaro, smiling and nodding sarcastically at him.

Molinaro tried to couch his attacks in a more dignified tone, repeatedly calling Cuomo “sir” and denouncing the “bullying and the threatening” that he said had come to dominate New York politics. But overall, the gloves came off early and stayed off, as the two men bickered over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, medical marijuana, and, of course, President Donald Trump. “Is this how we’re doing it?” Molinaro asked as Cuomo interrupted him again.

Yes, yes it was.

Meet Marc Trump — er, Molinaro

The debate was an opportunity for Molinaro — who has struggled to raise money and awareness — to introduce himself and his ideas to voters. And by and large, he spoke cogently and convincingly about policy and his vision for the state.

But Molinaro also failed to neutralize Cuomo’s central strategy of tying him to the president. Rather than emphasizing that he had not voted for Trump, or that he had denounced some of the president’s rhetoric, Molinaro instead sidestepped the governor’s questions about whether he supported Trump, possibly in an effort not to alienate some of his Republican base. Molinaro later told reporters he did not want to allow Cuomo to force him into an oversimplified answer.

But whatever Molinaro’s reasoning, the lack of a clear, unequivocal rejection of Trump dovetailed nicely with the governor’s campaign strategy of belittling Molinaro as nothing but a “Trump mini-me.”

The governor is acting like the front-runner that he is

While Molinaro needed the debate as a platform to give voice to wonky changes to the tax code or expansions of mental health care that could sway voters to his side, Cuomo, with all the benefits of incumbency, faced no such pressure.

The governor spent most of the debate demanding answers from Molinaro rather than describing his own vision for a third term. When he did talk about himself, it was more backward-looking than forward, touting bills he had signed or declarations he had made.

What took place behind the scenes also spoke to the hurdles facing Molinaro, perhaps even more so than what happened on air.

After the debate, Molinaro visited the press room to glad-hand reporters and convince them that he had succeeded in making his case. Cuomo did not pay a visit, instead sending his campaign chairman and a senior adviser to spin reporters. The governor, an aide said, was long gone.

The end was … weird

The governor made a few head-scratching statements during the debate, including a rejoinder early in the debate that he had “no problem ducking responsibility.” (Presumably he meant “taking.”)

At another juncture, he needled Molinaro for being “a lifetime politician,” an odd rebuke from a man who has been enmeshed in politics for most of his adult life. He also said that the song most emblematic of his campaign was “Empire State of Mind,” a Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit, a curious and perhaps misstated choice, given that “New York State of Mind” is a classic from his friend and supporter, Billy Joel.

But perhaps the biggest flub came in the closing seconds of the debate, when he was pressed by moderator Marcia Kramer to sing a little. (Yes, this actually happened.) Cuomo laughed and demurred, before joking that if Kramer, a longtime CBS political correspondent, wanted to hear him sing, she would have to come to the shower. (Yes. This also actually happened.)

What next?

Molinaro got what he wanted: a big stage and a prime-time slot to talk about his candidacy. But Cuomo sucked up much of the oxygen on screen. Many of the points that Molinaro has sought to highlight — corruption convictions tied to Cuomo’s administration, or the still-weak economic health of upstate — went more or less untouched.

With less than two weeks remaining in the race, Molinaro is running out of time to make voters hear those points. He’s running out of money, too.

And as Cuomo did not commit any serious gaffes (weirdness aside), it seems unlikely that this debate will change the direction of the race — a direction that is decidedly not in Molinaro’s favor.

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