At the Debate: Bombs and Love Taps

There were four different candidates on the stage last night at Pace University's Democratic attorney general debate, but the competition itself was pretty one-sided.

Right from the get-go, it was a three-against-one match, with the two marginal candidates, Sean Patrick Maloney and Charlie King — both locked at a mere three percent in the polls — playing tag-team and tossing love taps at front-runner Andrew Cuomo.

King, who worked for Cuomo at HUD during the Clinton administration when Cuomo was secretary of the agency, and ran as Cuomo's number two on a joint gubernatorial ticket in 2002, teased his old boss about his "receding hair line." That allowed the folicly-healthy Cuomo to tease back about King's "making fun of my basketball game." When it came time for the candidates to ask a question of their rivals the old- pals routine only got stronger with both King and Maloney meekly asking Cuomo to appear with them at "forums" on important issues.

The net affect of those mutual pats on the back was to make former city Public advocate Mark Green's aggressive attacks on Cuomo stand out all the more. With little left to lose and no more debates scheduled (Cuomo has refused all outstanding offers), Green lobbed grenade after grenade, ranging from Cuomo's ducking out after 14 months on what was supposed to be a three-year commitment as an assistant Manhattan District Attorney back in the 1980s, to his alleged failure to implement federal pesticide control guidelines in the nation's public housing authorities.

But the softball volleys from the other candidates gave Cuomo an opportunity to present himself as The Great Uniter, and cast Green as The Great Divider. "If we can set up a forum that works for you, that works for me," Cuomo said to King as the two men emphatically shook hands. "That which unites us makes us stronger.. .We have to make sure the Democratic party does not hurt itself," he said.

"Look, everyone has the right to run their campaign the way they see fit," said Cuomo in his opening remarks, fairly shaking his head at the sadness of it all. "Mark's been out there every day attacking. I choose not to do that. I choose to speak about the issues that affect New York.. .I'm going to stay positive."

"I think Mark should knock it off, it hurt Democrats," agreed Maloney to loud applause. "The attacks are over the top. Mark should just knock it off."

Maloney easily proved himself the glibbest sharp- shooter of the crew last night, suggesting that he could have played one of those fast-talking, Blackberry- thumbing characters in the TV series "West Wing" — which happens to be where Maloney used to work in the Clinton White House ("highest-ranking openly gay man ever to serve on the White House staff" as his Web-site bio asserts).

There were his scoldings for the bickering between Green and Cuomo: "I feel like the UN peace-keeping force"; and "I have two small girls, and what I usually say is, 'We can turn this car around right now.'" A few minutes later he got off a line that brought the house down about the death penalty (which he favors): "If this gang in Albany can't keep the lights on in Queens, they shouldn't be throwing the switch."

But then there was his flip, sound-bite sized, "Just do the job" response — repeated a half-dozen times — that he used to dismiss the truly thorny question about whether an Attorney General should ever decline to represent the state in a legal action they morally opposed (Maloney and Cuomo said never; Green and King said sometimes, as in the death penalty and gay marriage).

But for all his remonstrating against Green's "negative" attacks on front-runner Cuomo, Maloney managed to deliver the cheapest shot of the night, a below-the-waist punch that made you wince when you heard it, the kind of foul that would have cost him big points in the ring. It came as the first-time candidate offered up his defense of the death penalty after his three opponents had all registered their strong opposition to it. Maloney picked up right after Cuomo, who had just completed a lengthy and eloquent ("One mistake is one too many") statement of his beliefs, the same core position that cost his father the governorship 12 years ago. But instead of replying to Cuomo, Maloney turned towards Green to direct this comment: "I happen to believe Osama Bin Laden deserves to be put to death, and I'm sorry you disagree with that Mark, but I think that in extreme cases the state has the right to take lives," he said, and then went on to say that "taking out a Hezbollah leader" was another fair-game target, as was "the guy who killed JonBenet Ramsey." The low blow brought a few groans, but much louder hoots of delight from the Cuomo and Maloney backers who — measured by applause- appeared to predominate in the crowd and were clearly delighted to see Green rocked back on his heels. A moment later, Green, trembling in anger and roaring, fired back. "I don't need an education on what Osama Bin Laden did to this city. In war time, you try to kill the enemy."

It was a revealing moment, one that raised the question just what impact Maloney, a progressive gay man from Chelsea, will have in the race other than draw votes away from Green. Like King, Maloney has his Cuomo ties as well: He is an associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a high-powered law firm whose most prominent and influential member happens to be a former governor named Mario Cuomo who is of counsel.

A GIBSON ELECTRIC: The yes-or-no "lightning" rounds used by NY1's Dominic Carter at both last month's gubernatorial and the AG debate have proven to be both funny and illuminating. One of those moments came last night as all four candidates for the state's top law enforcement office — who presumably possess no more info than the rest of us have gleaned from news stories — had no trouble making a snap judgment that actor Mel Gibson should do jail time for his recent bleary-eyed, anti-Semitic-laced, DWI episode. One wished for at least one of these would-be law enforcers to have the moxie to admit, "I really don't know enough to say." And when tough-guy anchor Carter then barked, "It has to be 'yes' or 'no'!", the reasonable response would be, "So shoot me. I still don't know."

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