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10/16/06

11:00 AM

Debate Team 

A Sunday-Morning Mud Bath

Jeanine Pirro and Andrew Cuomo in their Sunday best.Photograph by James Estrin/AP

Sunday morning's attorney-general debate between Jeanine Pirro and Andrew Cuomo indulged a form of violence that was patently inappropriate for the churching hour. When two candidates stand at podiums and list the names of persons both alive and dead their opponent should apologize to, the discourse has morphed into a supernaturally grotesque form of petty. The attacks were heavy-handed, light on the facts, personal, visceral, catty, mousey, and, in a refreshing twist, only occasionally culled from canned laugh lines like Pirro's much-workshopped dig at Cuomo's lack of prosecutorial experience: "Your running for AG would be like me running for Joe Torre's position because I played softball 21 years ago." Clunk.

Pirro was a bit more Movie of the Week than duty required, once telling her adversary, "you've never held the hand of a child who's been victimized by a sexual predator," a gimmicky image that still suckered Cuomo into a jumbled rebuttal about how much he loved his kids. Pirro also got a hold of Cuomo on alleged corruption during his time as Clinton's HUD secretary ("if it's illegal today, what made it ethical then?") and didn't let go until she'd almost reversed the very stakes of the election itself. "Just so we're clear," Cuomo said. "There is a candidate who is being accused of criminal wrongdoing and is under investigation by a number of law-enforcement agencies and had their ethics questioned — that's not me, however." Well turned.

The blurring of their identities was Pirro's biggest hit and Cuomo's biggest problem. In the New York of 2006, a Democrat running for a law-enforcement position against a Republican under criminal investigation shouldn't have a hard time differentiating himself. Maybe it was Cuomo's New Democrat reluctance to get too close to his father's liberal legacy, a patricidal quirk he shares with George Bush. Cuomo emphasized his legal-beagle head over his social-justice heart, his competence over his compassion, and merged his candidacy with Eliot Spitzer's so many times you'd think they were running together. It was so glaring, the sainted one's name was almost taken in vain.

Of course, Cuomo didn't need to work so hard. He could have stood up there and read the newspaper, literally, as in that morning's Post, which recapped this magazine's must-read piece on life with the Pirros — and gone home a default champ. But it's to Cuomo's credit that he didn't. A good Catholic boy knows some topics are too unseemly for Sunday morning, even a Sabbath as besmirched as this.

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