The fate of Joe Lhota's faltering mayoral campaign hinges in large part on Tuesday night's debate against front-runner Bill de Blasio, who must merely avoid making significant gaffes, political observers said Monday.
"Lhota is the little guy with a slingshot right now. He can land a few stones off Goliath's forehead . . . not enough to wound him mortally, but enough to create a little interest this week about his campaign," said Rich Flanagan, an associate professor of political science at the College of Staten Island.
De Blasio, who has a 3-1 lead in the polls and a hefty war chest three weeks before the election, is a disciplined candidate unlikely to make a major misstep, so Lhota can bank only on slightly narrowing the public opinion gap, experts contend.
"De Blasio's screwing up probably would be more important at this point than Lhota doing well," said Michael Krasner, Queens College associate professor of political science.
Lhota himself agreed that Tuesday night's faceoff is a turning point in the race.
"I'll be going toe-to-toe with Bill de Blasio. His vision for the future, my vision for the future," the Republican said Monday after marching in Manhattan's Columbus Day parade.
"We will be able to see how different they are, and I'm comfortable that the majority of New Yorkers will side with me, because they already have in all the polls when they talk about the issues."
The debate, set for 7 p.m. at WABC-TV studios on the Upper West Side, will be the first of three faceoffs between the candidates before the Nov. 5 election.
Former public advocate Mark Green said Lhota should stay above the fray, noting that de Blasio has more debate and campaign experience. De Blasio has successfully run for City Council and public advocate.
"While Lhota understandably feels the pressure to score on three straight Hail Mary passes, it's not possible," Green said. "Instead, he should stay calm and positive about his own strengths and not throw dung at de Blasio."
On Sunday in Flushing, de Blasio said he was preparing for the debate the same way he has for the 60 or 70 candidate forums he participated in during the Democratic primary.
"The most important thing is to just review the core ideas that you want to put forward about the future of the city," he said. "I practice a lot, making sure I get the clear, precise vision out of where I want to take this city."
That vision, he repeatedly has stated, is one of resolving income inequalities in the city. Lhota, a former MTA chairman and deputy mayor, wouldn't disclose his strategy or tactics.
TJ Walker, a media communications consultant, said at this point in the campaign, a debate may not make a dent in the public's opinion of Lhota:
"The problem is, if everyone has written you off, no one pays attention."
With Dan Rivoli