For the second day in a row, Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota tried to seed doubts about Democrat Bill de Blasio by linking his past activism in Nicaragua to his current policies. But Lhota is also increasingly talking about how he'd address income inequality himself.
Outside a forum about women- and minority-owned businesses, I asked him, Are you saying that Bill de Blasio is a Marxist?
"No," Lhota said.
So, why use that term in this campaign?
"Anybody who loves the Sandinistas as much as he does, anybody who wants to support the Sandinistas, who are a pro-Marxist organization, it speaks for itself," Lhota responded.
At the same time, Lhota is increasingly adopting de Blasio's framing of the need to reduce inequality in New York. Lhota said his policies would reduce income inequality, while de Blasio's prescriptions are insufficient.
"He has no platform whatsoever to create jobs in the City of New York," Lhota said. "His answer to income inequality are things that are all around the periphery. All good things, but they don't do anything for income inequality."
Bill de Blasio tried to bat away Lhota's criticisms, calling them "increasingly silly." He embraced his past work in support of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s.
"I'm a progressive Democrat. I'm proud to be. I've worked on issues of inequality my whole life. I'm very proud of the work. I'm very proud of the work I did related to Central America," de Blasio said. When a reporter followed up to ask if he had ever embraced Marxist ideologies, de Blasio said, "It's 2013. I'd like to note I'm not going to stoop to Joe Lhota's level here. This is clearly just classic Republican tactics."
There is a method behind these tactics for Lhota, who is way down in the polls. Veteran political strategist Jerry Skurnick said the Republican's duel messages — that de Blasio is out of the political mainstream and doesn't have the right fixes to the problems he identified—are designed to fill in gaps in voters' perceptions of the Democratic front-runner.
"It was to de Blasio's advantage that he really wasn't taken that seriously as a candidate until the middle of August, when he suddenly took the lead in the pools. So he really is a bit more unknown than the average citywide candidate at this stage," Skurnick said.
Of course, Skurnick added, Lhota is also unknown. He doesn't think Lhota's charged, Cold War language will be very effective with voters — but he said after news reports of de Blasio's Nicaraguan activism and a honeymoon trip to Cuba surfaced, Lhota had to use what he could get.