With Joe Lhota and Bill de Blasio squaring off in their first of three debates tonight, there are a few things to watch for (beyond, of course, our live post-debate analysis at 8 p.m.):
• What will Joe Lhota try to do to close the massive gap in the polls? Labeling de Blasio a Sandinista-lover won't cut it. (Most people don't even know who the Sandinistas are.) Charter schools have been a big issue with Lhota lately and while that might help him with some parents, he'll probably need something bigger for all New Yorkers to take notice of his candidacy.
• Will Bill de Blasio tack to the center? He successfully out-liberaled his opponents in the Democratic primary so it will be interesting to see if he still talks about taxing the rich and ripping Mayor Bloomberg's legacy with a far-more-moderate electorate looming three weeks away.
• How will crime – or the lack of it – be addressed? The city just experienced an entire week without a murder. (Compared that to more than five a day in 1990). Which candidate can make the best case to continue that streak of safety? While stop-and-frisk is unpopular with primary voters, it's much more of a mixed bag with all voters in the city.
• How will Lhota duck the GOP? With Republicans in Congress about as popular at those rogue motorcyclists on the West Side Highway, the Republican candidate for mayor will very likely be telling voters NOT to look for the party label. Meanwhile, expect de Blasio repeatedly to say "my Republican opponent."
• Look out for a debate surprise. Lhota will throw everything but the kitchen sink at de Blasio so somewhere in that sink may be a new line of attack. Knowing it's smart politics never to rest, de Blasio could open up with a new attack on his own in an effort to distract Lhota and throw him off his game.
• How nasty will this get? While de Blasio seemed to relish slashing away at Christine Quinn in the primary debates, he doesn't seem to have the same level of animosity toward Lhota. (And how much of a hatchet man do you need to be with a 40-point lead in the polls)? Lhota has ripped away at de Blasio over the last several weeks but how will he act when his opponent is just several feet away?
It should be an interesting hour in a campaign that deserves some much-needed energy. And first debates -- like impressions -- are often the most important.