Joe Lhota remembered his talking points in Tuesday night's debate. Unfortunately for him, he said little to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the race, where Bill de Blasio is beating him by over 40 points. And in the most raucous exchange of the campaign, de Blasio and Lhota heatedly debated the legacies of David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, harkening back to a time a dwindling number of voters remember.
In every way, the Lhota campaign was more sharply organized this week than last -- pumping out a series of emails and tweets to bolster their candidate, and giving Lhota some of the best tag lines of the night: "Hold on to your wallet," and "Better be safe than sorry."
Lhota reminded viewers that he'd worked for Andrew Cuomo more recently than Bill de Blasio, and seemed to take de Blasio so off guard that he didn't remember to call Lhota a "Republican" until 18 minutes into the debate.
The candidates even agreed on a number of issues: they both support Michael Bloomberg's Seaport City proposal for housing in the East River, they want to roll-back his green taxi plan, and they're ambivalent about pedestrian plazas in Times Square, a signature Bloomberg urban planning initiative.
But on policy, Lhota argued against tax hikes for pre-K when polls show voters are willing to hike taxes to support schools and believe education is a top priority. He criticized Bill de Blasio's failure to get Bruce Ratner to build affordable housing around the Barclays Center, but didn't offer an alternative plan. He supported Ray Kelly and stop and frisk in a city where most voters say stop and frisk needs radical reform.
And Lhota labored under the fundamental burden of trying to paint de Blasio as David Dinkins redux, reprising a debate that hasn't happened in 24 years, raising the specter of a New York that most voters have no memory of.
"Your ad doesn't look like something that's trying to bring people together Mr. Lhota," de Blasio said, referring to a Joe Lhota campaign ad depicting dead bodies, riots, and cops with guns.
"It's trying to tell people what would happen --" Lhota started.
"It's fear-mongering and racebaiting. You know it. You know it." de Blasio said.
And it went on this way. (You can read the rest of the exchange at the end of this post.)
Lhota did manage to project his endearing candor, when he said his biggest regret was calling Port Authority police "mall cops." And he recalled arguably the best moment of his tenure at the MTA, during Sandy when he led the authority with such precision that it was able to get up and running far more quickly than anyone predicted.
For his part, de Blasio's prescriptions were anodyne -- he called again for a tax to support pre-K, praised his family, and lauded Bloomberg's post-Sandy resiliency plans. But he did little to lay out the sort of giant visions New Yorkers have become accustomed to under Mayor Bloomberg.
Bloomberg seemed an afterthought in the debate, which largely focused on the two mayors before him.
"There's nothing race-baiting about it,' Lhota said of his ad. "You want to throw out the race card? Let's talk about the various different mass cards for the thousands of people who are killed in this city..don't tell me I threw out the race card because there is nothing racial in there. And Bill you cannot stoop that low and bring that up.
de Blasio: Mr. Lhota can be as upset as he wants to be.
Lhota: I'm not upset!
de Blasio: The bottom line is his ad depicted images of riots, of dead bodies in the street, of racial imagery --
Lhota: Which racial imagery?
de Blasio: Go look at your own ad!
Lhota: You tell me!
de Blasio: He knows what he's up to and its what his boss Rudy Giuliani used to be up to and its not what a mayor should be doing.
Lhota: I'm getting sick and tired of you impugning the integrity of Rudy Giuliani let me tell you something
de Blasio: I would be happy to debate Mr. Giuliani --
Lhota: He was the man who created the renaissance in this city."
Lhota's vigorous defense of Giuliani drew whoops at a midtown bar. After the debate, the mood at Peter Dillon's was decidedly upbeat. New York Republican County Chair Daniel Isaacs stood on the steps leading into the bar and told the room of supporters, "the battle is on."
Click on the audio player to hear WNYC's Anna Sale's report on the debate.