Jay Townsend smiled at the end of nearly every sentence. Gary Berntsen measured each syllable coming out of his mouth like a man trying not to lose his temper.
The two Senate candidates running for the Republican nomination and the chance to take on Sen. Charles Schumer differed more on style than on substance. In their fist televised debate Monday night in Schenectady, Townsend, a communication consultant, and Berntsen, a former CIA operative, both agreed on supporting Arizona’s tough immigration law; disbelief in global warming; and support for civil unions for same-sex couples.
The biggest clashes between the two candidates came when each claimed to have been an early opponent of the plan to build an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero.
“I’m proud to say I was the first statewide candidate to go to Ground Zero and speak publicly about the mosque and suggest that the imam put it elsewhere,” said Townsend.
Later, Bernsten, whose work in chasing the Taliban through the hills of Tora Bora was told in <a href="http://www.ralphpezzullo.com/jawbreaker.html">a best-selling memoir</a>, said, “I’ll let you know I’ve been doing this for 20 years and a time stamp on your press release doesn’t mean very much.”
The other flashpoint between the two came when Townsend argued he’s more electable in November because already has the endorsement of the Conservative Party, a necessary ingredient for any Republican running statewide.
Townsend said, “I’m the only one on stage tonight who will have the Conservative line. No Republican has won a statewide election in New York without the Conservative line since Gerry Ford.”
Berntsen shot back, “I have the Taxpayer line, a new line that was created. I am the Republican designee, having won by 25 percent at the convention. I will turn out a large number of Republicans, I will turn out the Tea Party, in force. The Tea Party is the new conservative movement in New York. The Conservative Party will be small in comparison.”
Both men were unsparing in their criticism of Schumer, who is seeking his third term in the Senate and, depending on whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid survives his re-election, could be in a position to become that chamber’s highest ranking official.
Townsend and Berntsen, when they turned their focus to Schumer, said he had compromised his responsibility to New York for the sake of elevating himself in the Senate.
“He is more interested in being majority leader than fighting for the state of New York,” said Townsend. Specifically, Townsend said the new federal health care legislation contained billions of unfunded mandates that will be borne by New York property taxpayers.
Schumer “doesn’t stand up on the tough issues,” said Berntsen. “On the issue of the mosque right now, he’s in the fetal position in his office. He hasn’t made a statement. He’s hiding.”
A spokesman for Schumer has previously said the senator “is not opposed” to the plan.