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We Are Not Amused: Watching Cuomo vs. Paladino vs. an Ex-Madam vs. a Libertarian at the Women's National Republican Club

It's often said that the mood of the electorate this year is angry. But at the Women's National Republican Club on Monday night, the mood in the urbane and conservative audience that came to watch the eagerly anticipated New York gubernatorial debate could be described only as nonplused.

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The crowded stage at the New York gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University on Monday night. (Audrey C. Tiernan / Getty Images-pool)

It's often said that the mood of the electorate this year is angry. But at the Women's National Republican Club on Monday night, the mood could be described only as nonplused.

It was an urbane and conservative audience of about 70 that gathered at the club, a venerable private establishment in the heart of midtown Manhattan with all the features one might expect (plush carpeting: check; crystal chandeliers: check; private dining room: check). They were there for a large-screen viewing of the New York gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University on Long Island.

But the mood wasn't exactly celebratory, even with the Republican Party surging nationwide. Democrats are expected to keep the upper hand in the Empire State, and the debate itself didn't help. Even the Gray Lady said it verged on "farce." GOP nominee Carl Paladino and Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo, the current state attorney general, were joined on stage by a host of small-party standard bearers. Charles Barron adamantly turned the conversation to race issues whenever possible. Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins seemed perpetually angry as he extolled progressive taxation. Libertarian Warren Redlich drily reeled off one-liners and called for small government. Kristin Davis, a former madam who ran the prostitution ring that provided prostitutes to former governor Eliot Spitzer, demanded marijuana legalization and unexpectedly cited the New York Law Journal. And Jimmy McMillan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party stole the show with his catchphrase, "the rent is too damn high," which narrowly edged out his majestic mustache as the evening's star.

The throng of candidates on stage left little room for the marquee names to shine. Cuomo was aiming to avoid gaffes and cement his lead. Paladino was aiming just not to offend. With such a crowd, no one got more than 90 seconds to speak at a time. As a result, Cuomo and Paladino had a hard time differentiating between their platforms—both of which include lower property taxes, cutting waste and fraud, shrinking government, ending unfunded mandates, and expanding charter schools. A rare exception came on the last question, when candidates were asked to answer yes or no whether they supported gay marriage (Paladino—whose stand on gay rights has been the focus of his campaign for a week—meandered, then said no when pressed; Cuomo and all the others said they did, with McMillan insisting he'd let people marry a shoe).

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Meanwhile, the midtown audience was restless. Despite occasional giggles (for example, after Davis delivered a sharp though clearly well-rehearsed one-liner: "The career politicians in Albany are the biggest whores in the state"), everyone seemed to wish the debate had been between only Paladino and Cuomo. Only 20 minutes in, a woman turned to me and muttered, "This is so depressing I don't think I can stand it. They're all nuts!" Later, a man harrumphed that Davis, the former madam, was the best one on stage. And it was the libertarian Redlich who garnered the most applause from attendees. Paladino's halting answers and erratic hand gestures were generally met with polite boredom.

Of course, the Tea Party-backed Paladino has never been the establishment pick. The Republican Party tried to keep him off the ballot, and his victory over Rick Lazio in the primary came as a shock to many. Manhattan resident Anne Frevola wasn't a Paladino voter in the primary. Would she vote for him in the general? "I ... guess ... so?" she said. "I know probably Cuomo's going to win, but I'm not a Democrat, so I guess I'm going for Paladino." Another Manhattanite, Bill Stewart, was a Lazio man until just before the primary, when he decided Paladino was a stronger candidate who might win the general election. Now he doesn't seem so sure. Although he was bitterly amused by Cuomo's similarity to Paladino ("Cuomo was trying to out-Republican Paladino; if you didn't know he had a 'D' there and that his name was Cuomo, you'd have said, 'He's kind of a right-winger' "), he wasn't confident he would pull the lever for Paladino a second time.

So if not the Republican establishment, what about Tea Partiers? I talked to John Press, a Manhattanite who also serves as president of the Brooklyn Tea Party. He didn't trust the overpolished Cuomo, but Paladino didn't set him on fire either. "I came here leaning toward Paladino because he was the opposition, but he seemed so awkward and ill prepared, so that was a turn-off," Press told me. "Maybe Redlich is as radical in reality as Paladino is in rhetoric, and he seems like he's thoughtful enough to get it done."

Disaffected Democrats weren't ready to hop on the Paladino bandwagon: a woman named Martha refused to give her last name, but told me she came in leaning Paladino and departed leaning Davis, because at least the former madam was straightforward!

Against this backdrop, it wasn't entirely surprising that with the exception of a stack of leaflets, Paladino's campaign wasn't in evidence. But several other candidates were, pressing their cases in a forum preceding the debate. Joe DioGuardi, who's running against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, touted both his credentials as a CPA and his daughter, former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi. Jay Townsend, who polls show is trailing the powerful Sen. Chuck Schumer by 30 points, insisted the winds were turning in his race.

The last participant in the forum was Craig Schley, an Independence Party candidate who elicited an initially enthusiastic response when he said he was running against Rep. Charlie Rangel. But the longer he spoke—the former Democrat appealed to the audience by telling them that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"—the enthusiasm seemed to wear off. It wasn't actually that different from the way the audience seemed to be feeling about Paladino.

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