Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997.
As a rule, candidates with huge leads in polls want to restrict debates. Every appearance on the same stage offers an underdog the opportunity to change minds and a favorite the chance to stumble.
So with less than a month to Election Day, Democrat Bill de Blasio skipped Wednesday's mayoral faceoff. That meant long-shot Republican Joe Lhota got to share 60 minutes of free broadcast time with longer-shot Independence Party nominee Adolfo Carrion.
"I'm sorry that Mr. de Blasio decided he was going to take the Rose Garden strategy and not make any mistakes," Carrion said -- calling it "a political decision that I think is disrespectful to the voters."
De Blasio has carefully controlled all public appearances. But the public advocate has committed to his first of three debates next Tuesday -- perceived by foes as perhaps a last chance to cut him down to size.
While better positioned for an upset than Carrion, Lhota used his airtime Wednesday to struggle against his own foreboding numbers. Keeping his exchanges with Carrion cordial, Lhota slammed de Blasio in absentia as an extremist.
Perhaps more importantly, Lhota tried to combat the caricatures to which a GOP candidate can be subjected in blue-state New York's bluest city.
Fielding moderators' questions, Lhota said: Congressional Republicans are making a "huge mistake" paralyzing the federal government; a true progressive wouldn't resist charter-school expansion; there's "no role for racial profiling" in law enforcement; and affordability, economic inequality and employment demand real solutions.
No, Lhota said, he doesn't think personal revulsion at an art display should defund a museum. And yes, he would join Mayors Against Illegal Guns if elected. When pressed on his youthful admiration of right-wing icon Barry Goldwater, Lhota noted the late Arizona senator favored abortion rights and supported gay rights (but was wrong to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act). Hillary Clinton, too, was a Goldwater backer, back in the day, he noted.
While acknowledging the polling gap, Lhota alluded to recent Siena Research Institute numbers showing he's on the same page with more New Yorkers regarding schools and the stewardship of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
But the widespread perception of being behind begets troubles of its own. This week Kenneth Langone, a key Lhota financial backer, was quoted as saying de Blasio "is going to win." That cannot make it any easier for his candidate to collect funds or generate momentum.
For his part, Carrion said de Blasio and others were never "vetted" during the primaries because certain candidates' "personal issues" absorbed so much attention.
Fewer than one in four of the city's nearly 3 million registered Democrats participated in the primary. "You folks in the press and everybody else treats it like he has some sort of a phenomenal mandate," Carrion said.
Lhota said he, like Carrion, favors "nonpartisan" municipal elections. Nobody mentioned that voters rejected such a plan in a citywide referendum pushed a decade ago by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.