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Debate Theater

October 16, 2014

There might be some drama in next Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate.

At a strategic moment in the debate, Rob Astorino might leave his assigned place on the stage, walk over to the Governor, point at him and say: “New Yorkers need to know that this man is under federal investigation for corruption!”

Astorino and his people have been gaming out and practicing the stunt. The hope and expectation is that this will be the memorable moment of the campaign, producing headlines and perhaps an iconic photograph.

It’s a risky thing for Astorino to do, but, trailing badly, he has little to lose and everything to gain. If Cuomo scowls in the picture, if he looks angry or loses it, Astorino will benefit immensely. Then the race is about the nice family man vs. the mean, corrupt man.

Cuomo, of course, will understand what’s happening. He knows that, no matter what, he must keep his composure. But will he be able control his body posture and facial expression?  Even when smiling, Cuomo often seems to have a frown.

Cuomo can’t look away, or wave him off. Part of him will want to be the Queens kid he once was and say: “Get out of my face.”  But he’ll be best served simply by smiling and standing tall.

There is another approach for Cuomo that would require just the right touch. He could extend his hand to Astorino, as if to shake hands.  If Astorino accepts the hand, then that’s the picture for the media — as opposed to the bold confrontation picture that Astorino wants. If Astorino refuses the hand, an image of him doing so would turn the tables on him.

You might be thinking: But why would Cuomo want to reach out to shake Astorino’s hand when Astorino is goading and insulting him? It’s because the gesture is not about the moment; it’s about the subsequent characterization of the moment in the media. It’s a battle to win the way the exchange will be perceived.

Again, Cuomo loses if he has so much as a smirk on his face. And Astorino loses if, he looks small, whiny or desperate.

The last time something like this happened was last year in a congressional race in southern California. The incumbent was berating a challenger for distorting his record and took a step toward the challenger to emphasize his point with a finger point that almost touched the other man’s chest. The challenger rose to the occasion, putting his arm around the other man’s shoulders and given him a jostling hug while saying: “You want to get into this?” A sheriff’s deputy and several aides then stepped between the two men – both of whom ending up looking bad.

Before that there was the famous Lazio-Clinton debate. It was a disaster for Lazio. He invaded her space. Man to man it might have been ok. Woman to woman it might have been ok. But man to woman it was wrong and made everyone watching it feel uncomfortable. It made Lazio look like a jerk.

We don’t begrudge Astorino for the attempt to do something different in this debate. In fact, we can’t wait to see how it unfolds because this really has been a boring election cycle. It’s been stultifying, and somebody ought to shake it up.

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