National News

Cuomo-Nixon Debate: Six Takeaways

He didn’t snap. She didn’t whiff.

Posted Updated

Jesse McKinley
Shane Goldmacher, New York Times

He didn’t snap. She didn’t whiff.

The first and only debate between Cynthia Nixon and Gov. Andrew Cuomo was fierce from the opening bell, with sniping, cross-talk and clear differences on substantive policy.

But it was no knockout blow for either candidate, which was perhaps more damaging to the chances of Nixon, whose campaign has trailed in the polls. Her team was banking that the exposure of a statewide broadcast debate — even on a quiet late summer Wednesday that Cuomo chose — could help ignite her insurgent challenge.

She tried to lure Cuomo into a meme-able moment of “mansplaining” and while he, more than once, looked down on her preparedness for the job (“This is real life,” he said dismissively), he didn’t say anything nearly as memorable as his quip earlier this month that America “was never that great.”

In the filing room, as reporters typed away on deadline, multiple members of Team Cuomo loitered to bend every available ear about the governor’s performance. At another point, Nixon’s wife, Christine Marinoni, walked through waving her arms. “She kicked ass!” she said. “Clearly won. Clearly won.”

Here are some less partisan takeaways:

The Game Was Not (Fundamentally) Changed

For nearly 60 minutes, Nixon and Cuomo exchanged barbs and blows, but it would be hard to view the campaign’s only head-to-head confrontation as a crucial turning point.

Did Nixon come across as a credible candidate for governor? Yes.

Did Cuomo stumble irreparably? No.

Beating an incumbent is hard. Beating an incumbent is even harder when he has a war chest of $24.4 million, at last count.

Nixon turned in a more-than-solid introduction for herself for the New York electorate. She was fluid on the issues and comfortable on stage with a two-term incumbent. That alone could be significant for a candidate who cannot currently afford television ads. But in and of itself, it seems unlikely to shake up the dynamics of a race with two weeks left.

Cuomo’s Third-Term Agenda? Anybody’s Guess

Cuomo, 60, is seeking to match the accomplishment of his father, Mario Cuomo, by seeking a third term. What he might do the next four years, however, was not articulated during the debate (nor, really, during the entire campaign).

In the post-show spin, campaign aides to the governor said that he would like to push through more ethics reforms — depending on the political makeup of the state Senate, of course — and continue and complete big infrastructure projects like a new Penn Station and La Guardia Airport. But during his 60 minutes with Nixon, Cuomo offered little to no guidance as to what Cuomo III might do or accomplish.

Cuomo Settled In

At the top of the debate, Cuomo seemed to be striving to project command, pitching himself forward in his chair like a guidance counselor striving to make a point to worried parents. But toward the end of the debate, Cuomo leaned back in his chair, more relaxed like the marijuana-sampling college student he said he once was.

Cuomo had controlled the circumstances of the debate — it was held in the same room where he accepted his party’s endorsement in May, after all, and under conditions, atmospheric and otherwise, that he dictated.

Indeed, the debate setup — with the governor seated at a table — somewhat resembled one of his news conferences. Toward the end of the debate Wednesday, he seemed confident that he would ride that advantage to victory.

Cuomo: Cynthia Who? Trump, Trump, Trump

Cuomo answered the first question of the night by almost immediately launching into an attack on the president.

“Someone has to stand up to him, someone has to stop him,” he said.

Cuomo has shown a particular taste for sparring with Trump lately, after a long period of barely mentioning his fellow Queens native. It took far longer Wednesday for Cuomo to even mention Nixon’s name — he consistently called her “my opponent” — only engaging after she baited and badgered him.

That he did not want to formally acknowledge her is not surprising; since his early weeks spent reacting to her policy proposals, he has run most of the campaign as if he is running unchallenged.

And after Sept. 13, he is hoping he will never have to mention Nixon again.

Nixon Left a Lot on the Table

The debate was billed as an hour, and that was not nearly long enough for Nixon to make all the points she wanted. In her underfunded candidacy, this was the moment that all attention was on her, and she left unsaid many of her talking points.

The fact that she calls Cuomo a “bully”? Unmentioned. Trump’s video at Cuomo’s bachelor party? Missing. Her pursuit of a millionaire’s tax — broadly popular with Democrats, but not Cuomo — to fix the subways? Barely a peep. The fact that sexual harassment policy in Albany was crafted by an all-male group of elected officials? Nothing. The historic nature of her LGBT candidacy and that she would be the state’s first female governor? Not that, either.

Yes, she made many of her points. She made some of them very well. But what she did not say in her lone face-to-face shot with Cuomo also loomed large.

Right after the debate aired, she took to Twitter to ask Cuomo, “Want to do it again?”

He did not have to reply for her to know the answer would be no.

Cuomo 2020? Over His Dead Body.

It was a sign of Cuomo’s advantage in his re-election that he was asked about running for president.

He gave his starkest answer yet about serving out a third term.

“The only caveat is if God strikes me dead,” he said. “Otherwise, I will serve four years as governor of the state of New York.”

Politicians often leave themselves wiggle room when making promises, but breaking a pact involving God and death is another matter.

Cuomo was not asked about his ambitions for a fourth term as governor — a bar, notably, that his father failed to clear, losing to George Pataki.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.