Lhota, de Blasio: Tale of two campaign styles

Democratic nominee for New York City mayor Bill Democratic nominee for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, left, greets voters at the annual Columbus Day Parade in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Republican mayoral nominee Joe Lhota, right, marches in the annual Hispanic Day Parade in Manhattan. (Oct. 12, 2013, Oct. 13, 2013). Photo Credit: Linda Rosier, Charles Eckert

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On the campaign trail, Bill de Blasio often bends his 6-foot-5 frame low to look voters in the eye, squeeze a shoulder and shake their hands, calling them "brother" or "my friend."

Joe Lhota listens intensely to would-be constituents. He's friendly, but reserved, often clasping his hands tightly in front of him. Looking for an icebreaker at a recent stop in Queens, he pointed to a man's team cap and said, "Go, Rangers."

In a city that spins at a frenetic pace, it often takes big personalities to capture the attention of New Yorkers. As Democrat de Blasio and Republican Lhota gear up for the first of three televised mayoral election debates Tuesday night, voters not only will be evaluating what they say, but how they connect to the public.

Whether it's shaking hands with commuters on the street, bantering on talk radio or matching wits during debates, candidates' personal campaign styles play an essential role in electability, experts said.

"Voters -- and people in general -- don't react cerebrally to candidates," said Doug Muzzio, Baruch College professor of public affairs. "They react emotionally and viscerally."

Staring at a 3-to-1 deficit in polls, Lhota will have to step outside his comfort zone as a measured speaker to counter de Blasio's more dynamic demeanor, Muzzio said.

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"Lhota has to be very aggressive toward de Blasio, he's got to take him down," he said. "He's got to be confrontational, but that runs counter to his personality, because he's not a very demonstrative person."

De Blasio cuts an energetic figure, even though he has logged less time on the stump since winning the Sept. 10 primary.

Donald Waiters, 58, of Harlem, a member of District Council 37, the city's largest municipal union, recently asked de Blasio whether union workers would get raises if he were elected mayor on Nov. 5. He caught de Blasio as the candidate was dashing to a waiting SUV after a Harlem campaign stop. But de Blasio stopped to grip Waiters' shoulder and told him: "We're going to get you a contract. It might take a while."

Waiters seemed reassured. "He'll do what he can," he said.

De Blasio's years on the hustings -- first running Hillary Clinton's successful 2000 Senate race and then his own campaigns for City Council and public advocate -- have helped hone his stumping skills.

Lhota, who has worked mostly on the administrative side of politics, including as a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, is struggling for recognition and recovering from blunders such as calling Port Authority police "mall cops."

"De Blasio has a somewhat more open and freewheeling style, even while being a very deliberate and controlled communicator," said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. "Lhota tends to be more formal, tends to speak in the language of policy and less easily the language of the citizens."

In Jackson Heights last month, Lhota walked alongside retired Cornell University professor Arturo Ignacio Sanchez, 65, for about a block as Sanchez pressed the candidate about how he'd help minority-owned small businesses survive in the gentrifying area. Sanchez appreciated that Lhota listened.

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"I don't think he addressed my question, but he didn't come off in a defensive manner," Sanchez said.

De Blasio's favorability ratings are more than twice as high as Lhota's, polls show.

"Joe Lhota's had a hard time getting both his ideas and his personality across," said Michael Krasner, an associate professor of political science at Queens College. "He's a less dynamic presence in the race than de Blasio."

The Republican is pinning his comeback hopes on the debates. Krasner said Lhota should be himself, because he can't compete with de Blasio on flourish and rhetoric.

"It's very hard to change a leopard's spots in the middle of the campaign," Krasner said, advising Lhota to "take what is otherwise a defect and make it into a virtue. Make yourself the plain-spoken, regular person who's not like these other politicians, all fancy and dramatic."

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Lhota supporters are hopeful that voters eventually will appreciate his personality. "One-on-one, Joe Lhota is a very charismatic politician," Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Queens) said. "People are still getting to know him, and the more they get to know him, the more they'll like him."

Those in De Blasio's corner counter that Lhota can't match the empathy that their candidate effortlessly exudes. "When you see a guy that tall reach all the way down to a guy in a wheelchair, that's very powerful," said Chet Whye, a Democratic consultant.

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