Spitzer Plays by the Book

Moments before the Democratic gubernatorial candidates took the stage for last night's debate at Pace University, NY1 political director Bob Hardt walked up to the podium labeled "Tom Suozzi" and snatched a thick vellum binder from it. Up in the balcony where the press corps was parked, one scribe cracked to another: "Look, Hardt just stole Suozzi's playboook."

Actually, as was learned later, that's exactly what had happened. And while it might not have been the news- break of the evening (that was probably the haymakers thrown by Nassau County executive Suozzi at Spitzer's sheriff of Wall Street reputation), it was certainly the most intriguing exchange. Before the debate, Attorney General Spitzer angrily objected that Suozzi's binder was a violation of the rules which barred the use of props of any kind. The rules were an effort to avoid the kind of hijinks staged in 2000 when Republican Rick Lazio stalked over to Hillary Clinton with a piece of paper he demanded she sign on the spot pledging not to use soft money campaign expenditures.

But according to Suozzi, Spitzer threw a royal tantrum over the presence of the multi-tabbed book of talking points, threatening to walk out on the debate then and there if it wasn't removed. "He got very hostile. He was really yelling," Suozzi told reporters later. Suozzi was still marveling at what he insisted had been his rival's over-reaction when he walked over to a Beekman Street pub crowded with supporters where he stood on a chair to address his troops. "He was really freaking out," said a clearly delighted Suozzi.

Spitzer's camp did little to counter that take. Campaign manager Ryan Toohey refused to talk about the incident, saying he wasn't present. Indeed, other than the candidates, the only other witness was NY1 political director Hardt, a co-host and sponsor of the event, who was the soul of discretion. Saying only that "the rules are the rules," Hardt insisted the exchange was covered by an implicit agreement that all debate negotiations were off- the-record. In the post-debate media spin room, Hardt had to fend off media colleagues who insisted that Spitzer's reputation for temper tantrums made the exchange fair game. Of course, if that were true, as Hardt pointed out, he'd have to give up every other pre-debate conversation he had with the candidates, which he rightly wasn't about to do.

Still, the incident is fairly revealing. A day before the debate, a Siena Research Institute survey put Spitzer at a whopping 78 percent among likely Democratic voters, with Suozzi registering an anemic nine percent. So why would a front runner enjoying such a 69-point romp in the polls get hot and bothered about a rival in single-digits sneaking a cheat sheet into the test?

The answer is that lightning can strike anytime, and Suozzi, as much as he's been ignored so far as a hapless long-shot by most of the media, is capable of making a compelling case for his candidacy, as he showed last night. Like an underdog boxer bent on winning quick respect, the good looking 43-year-old wasted no time on debating niceties.

"Mr. Spitzer has embraced the status quo," Suozzi said in his opening volley. "You will be replacing a Republican with a Democratic governor who will tinker around the edges. We need wholesale reform. Both parties are rotten to the core."

That's not the usual rhetoric employed by those trying to score with the party faithful in a tough primary, but the analysis is core to Suozzi's outsider vs. insiders game plan.

"He didn't even take time to say thank you to the host, NY1," commented Christopher Malone, professor of political science at Pace. "He just went right in. He finally got to go toe-to-toe. That was a victory in and of itself, though Spitzer did a great job defending himself."

Suozzi's chief thrust was to portray himself as a tried and true government executive who turned around what he calls "the worst-run county in the nation," while portraying Spitzer as a prosecutor who had chosen as attorney general to focus on corruption in Wall Street, the record business, and big insurance firms.

Those blows, however, were fairly easily parried. Spitzer jabbed back that he had revived a "moribund" office, going after polluters, pharmaceutical company abuses, and government waste. "And yes we took on those companies on Wall Street that were violating their trust to us by squandering and wasting our pension dollars and our savings." The prosecutor was glad to wear his battle ribbons from those campaigns: Twice during the debates he reminded listeners that Time Magazine had called him "Crusader of the Year."

Suozzi dented Spitzer's liberal armor when he said that he opposed the death penalty while the attorney general supports it, albeit, as he couched his answer, only for deserving fiends like terrorists and cop killers. On the other hand, Suozzi caught sharp hisses from the crowd when he said would extend civil rights and benefits to gay couples but not the bonds of matrimony. "In my religion, marriage is a sacrament between men and women," said the Roman Catholic from Glen Cove, as Spitzer -- Jewish from Manhattan -- said he would introduce a gay marriage bill in his first days in office.

Remarkably, when asked during the "lightning round" of yes or no answers demanded by moderator Domenick Carter, both men put themselves out of step with some 80 percent of their fellow Demorats in the state when they both insisted they would not set a date for withdrawal from Iraq. There was no follow-up to the question, but the answers mean that liberal New York will definitely have two pro-war candidates at the top of the statewide ticket this November, unless Hillary Clinton has a sudden change of heart.

Suozzi peppered several of his answers with demands that "we need to keep talking," and, "That's why we need more debates." Indeed, debates may be the only hope Suozzi has left. Up against Spitzer's $16 million bankroll, and the TV ads now rolling out off the tube for the favorite, Suozzi's odds are more than steep. (Spitzer's latest ad, a pro-kindergarten ad featuring a lilting voice singing "This Little Light of Mine" over portraits of angelic kids, is nothing short of a Madison Avenue triumph.)

Malone, the Pace political analyst, said that while the publicity from last night's debate could give Suozzi a 10-15 point bump, that still won't be nearly enough. "He'll need to get up to 30 or 40 points in the polls before he'll get Spitzer to do more debates," said Malone.

In fact the best indicator of how well Spitzer is doing with the electorate was on view this week in a Republican campaign ad: Jeanine Pirro, the Republican candidate for attorney general, cited Spitzer as a role model for the job she wants to do if elected.

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