New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, left, on Jan. 8,...

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, left, on Jan. 8, 2014 in Albany, and his Republican opponent Rob Astorino on March 7, 2014 in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo faces a challenge in the upcoming election from an energized left and from a united right, each emboldened by an Albany ethics controversy that has roiled his administration.

But New Yorkers might not see that played out in debates.

Cuomo, a Democrat with $35 million in his campaign account, so far has ignored GOP opponent Rob Astorino's calls for debates and won't, at this point, commit to any.

Astorino, with $2.4 million in the bank and trailing Cuomo in the polls by more than 30 percentage points, is calling for a series of debates. But the Westchester County executive insists he will only participate in one-on-one debates with Cuomo, without a cast of minor party candidates as in the sole 2010 governor's debate, a format Cuomo backed.

Those stands could add up to no debate, or part of a disturbing trend in which debates focus more on style over substance, while providing little insight to voters, good-government advocates warn.

"It's the public that loses," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, which for decades has set rules and sponsored political debates nationwide and in New York. "You don't get the ability to be an informed voter if you can't get the candidates in an exchange on their issues."

Astorino, who also has strong Conservative Party support -- critical for Republicans running statewide -- called Cuomo a "coward" for dodging debates.

"He didn't want to debate in 2010 unless there were 10 people on stage so he would only have to spend three minutes talking," Astorino said. "I called for eight regional debates, including one on Long Island special to the needs of Long Island."

Primary debate prospects

Cuomo campaign officials won't comment on whether he will debate, although they note debate negotiations often begin in September. That probably would mean no debate before the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, in which Cuomo faces a challenge from Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor and Randy Credico, an entertainer and activist.

Teachout said in a debate she would push Cuomo on issues such as the controversy over whether his administration sought to dissuade the Moreland Commission on public corruption from issuing subpoenas to Cuomo's campaign donors and allies. "So I'm not holding my breath," she said. "We should have a real debate about our competing visions."

Astorino also is hitting Cuomo hard on the Moreland controversy, which he said has prompted a spike in campaign contributions and volunteers.

Cuomo, the commission co-chairman William Fitzpatrick and some commissioners deny any interference, saying the governor provided only advice. The Manhattan U.S. attorney's office is investigating the unfinished cases provided by the commission and Cuomo's abrupt ending of the panel when he struck a deal with the State Legislature on ethics reforms. That could yield continuing fallout through Election Day.

"I don't think Gov. Cuomo is going to want to take on Teachout in a Democratic primary platform," said Lee Miringoff, a political science professor and director of the Marist Poll in Poughkeepsie.

Cuomo had to stave off a surprisingly strong challenge by Teachout on May 31 for the endorsement by the liberal Working Families Party, and Teachout continues to court liberal Democrats who dominate Democratic primaries.

But in any general election debate, Miringoff said, " 'The more the merrier' works for the incumbent."

Avoided other candidates

In their most recent debates, Cuomo in 2010 appeared calm and statesmanlike, and he mostly avoided engaging six other candidates, who sometimes shouted or made outrageous claims.

Astorino in 2009 was aggressive in debates against Democratic Westchester County Executive Andy Spano. Astorino beat Spano by 12 percentage points.

"Some incumbents feel 'more magisterial' if surrounded by a gaggle of less-prepared minor party candidates," said Tony Affigne, a professor who specializes in campaigns and elections at Providence College.

Major party challengers, however, "believe they can only appear equal in stature to the incumbent when all attention is focused on their challenge."

But even when debates happen after time-consuming negotiations, they aren't swinging many elections in these days of big money campaigns, TV and Internet ads, targeted mailings and other tools, experts say.

"By the time debates are scheduled, many voters have already picked favorites, and see only the best in their preferred candidate -- and the worst in the others," Affigne said.

"I don't care if a debate only changes one voter's mind," said Mordecai Lee, professor of government affairs at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Democrat who served five terms in the Wisconsin State Legislature. "It was worth it."

"Surprisingly, most voters would like to know substance," he said.

Debate moments

Andrew M. Cuomo and Rob Astorino in past debates:

In the 2009 campaign for Westchester County executive, Democratic incumbent Andy Spano confronted claims by Rob Astorino, the Republican challenger, that fast-rising property taxes were Spano's fault. Spano took out a copy of Astorino's property tax bill, which showed smaller growth in the county tax portion. Astorino responded that even though school taxes went up fastest, he blamed Spano for the rise in the overall tax bill. Astorino then leaned toward Spano and said: "It's a little creepy that you've been snooping around in my taxes."

In a debate as he ran for re-election as Westchester County executive, Astorino said of his record on taxes: "I stand firmly with the taxpayer. We need to stop tax madness."

In 2006 as the front-runner in the state attorney general race, Cuomo emphasized that his experience as secretary of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department under President Bill Clinton had prepared him for the state job. "When I was at HUD, I supervised 350 attorneys, which is more than anyone else," Cuomo said. "The budget at HUD was about [a] $30 billion budget, which is about 60 times the size of the New York attorney general's office, and I worked with law enforcement all across the United States."

In a 2010 gubernatorial debate, Cuomo, then state attorney general and the front-runner in the campaign, shared the stage with six other candidates. They included a former Manhattan madam and Jimmy McMillan of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party. "I'm with Jimmy," Cuomo said, laughing at the spectacle when asked to answer a weighty policy question. "The rent is too damn high."

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