Candidates get ready for the gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University,...

Candidates get ready for the gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University, Monday. From left: Carl Paladino (Republican), Jimmy McMillan (Rent is too Damn High), Andrew Cuomo (Democratic), Charles Barron (Freedom Party), Howie Hawkins (Green Party), Kristin Davis (Anti-Prohibition Party) and Warren Redlich (Libertarian Party). (Oct. 18, 2010) Credit: Audrey Tiernan

A Cuomo-Paladino showdown it was not.

Anyone hoping to see televised fireworks between Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino was likely disappointed by last night's 90-minute Newsday/News 12 Long Island debate at Hofstra University's David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.

Paladino made an obvious effort to portray himself as kinder and gentler than he has sounded on the campaign trail, avoiding mention of Cuomo until the very end. Cuomo stayed pleasant, polite and relaxed, though many of his arguments were by now familiar to viewers who have seen his ads and news conferences.

The real stars of the debate were the five little-known and under-financed minor-party candidates, for whom this may be the only serious opportunity to present their case to New York voters. And they proved a surprisingly poised and articulate if sometimes comical bunch, delivering zinger after zinger about the state of New York government that might have made even Cuomo nervous, had he a less commanding lead in the polls.

Jimmy McMillan, the Rent is 2 Damn High candidate for governor, decried poverty in New York with the remark: "Someone's stomach just growled: can you hear it?" And Kristin Davis, the former madam pushing to legalize pot on the Anti-Prohibition line, declared that the difference between her escort agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is that she kept one set of books and provided "on-time and reliable service."

No one had more at stake in the debate than Paladino, who has needed to turn around an angry, loose-cannon image that some fear could depress Republican turnout statewide. He began the evening strikingly nervous, halting, and unable to remember his lines or to stay within his allotted time, and even left the stage at one point to go to the bathroom. By debate's end he reverted to familiar fist-punching harangues about waste in government.

New York's Medicaid program, for instance, "attracts every Tom, Dick and Harry from everywhere in America to come and lay on the backs of our taxpayers," he said.

Later, he said, "I'm not the candidate up to his neck in special-interest campaign contributions . . . That's why they call me crazy."

Cuomo acknowledged that the state's government "has been an embarrassment" due to the resignation of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and a host of other scandals.

But, he said, "No state has anything on New York State . . . We're going to make New York State the Empire State once again."

Cuomo ignored a question from Warren Redlich about the source behind a $55,000 campaign contribution from a parking lot in midtown Manhattan, attempted a little light banter with McMillan, who wore black gloves and drew laughter throughout the evening.

Redlich, the Stanford-educated Libertarian candidate, drew applause throughout the evening with quips such as his lament about the "No Administrator Left Behind" policy that preserves bureaucracy while teachers' jobs are cut.

He focused much of his fire on the thousands of high-paid bureaucrats in state agencies like the Commission on Correction, a three-member deliberative body. He suggested he and two other candidates could do the job cheaper. "Give us 300 bucks, we could do it with a six pack and a pizza once a month," he said.

Charles Barron, 60, a New York City councilman and former Black Panther who is running on the Freedom Party line after being disappointed with the Democrats' all-white ticket, complained at the debate's start about the absence of any Hispanic, Native American or Asian interviewer on the moderators' panel, which included News 12 anchors Doug Geed and Brian Conybeare and Newsday columnist Joye Brown.

Earlier Monday, Verizon Communication Inc. protested a decision by Cablevision Systems Corp. to not make its sponsored broadcast of the debate available to Verizon's FiOS 1 cable news channel. "We reached out to Cablevision directly, but our request was flatly denied," the company said in a news release.

In response, a spokesperson for News 12 Long Island - a Cablevision property and one of the organizers of the debate along with Hofstra and Newsday - noted that "FiOS 1 has the same access and use of the gubernatorial debate as every other news organization including the network affiliates and national news channels." Cablevision, which owns Newsday, provides a feed that other news organizations can use up to five minutes after the debate has ended.

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