It was freaky Tuesday in last night's mayoral debate with the two candidates exchanging each other's playbook. Frontrunner Bill de Blasio was not content to sit on his massive lead in the polls and hammered away at his rival, Joe Lhota, while Lhota seemed less interested in taking swings at his opponent.
While having to defend his Republican party affiliation is not an easy thing for Lhota, things that should have been easier for him in the debate still proved difficult. When the question came up about de Blasio's lack of management experience, Lhota didn't pounce. He also had a golden opportunity in the argument over the city's subsidies to keep Fresh Direct from leaving the five boroughs. De Blasio's dismissive attitude toward the corporate giant was reminiscent of the attitude of a generation of city politicians who watched thousands of companies quit doing business in the city in the 1960s and 1970s. But Lhota never expressed the kind of outrage that you'd expect from a pro-business Republican.
Surprisingly, the former mayor who was taken to the woodshed wasn't de Blasio's former employer, David Dinkins, but Lhota's old boss, Rudy Giuliani. Perhaps looking at some internal poll numbers, de Blasio called Giuliani one of the most divisive mayor's in the city's recent history and turned what had previously looked on as a political asset for Lhota into a liability. Perhaps afraid of looking like he was race-baiting, Lhota avoided talking about Dinkins, whose historical legacy has been mixed at best.
In the end, though, it was Lhota's Republican party label that proved the toughest thing for him to defend in a time when the GOP is toxic in New York City because of the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis. While Lhota has been trying to argue that he's a different kind of Republican, he's also a Republican who voted for Mitt Romney and John McCain for president – and there's no clever way of talking around that fact.
While there are two more debates, first debates often make the strongest impressions on voters. Joe Lhota is likely hoping to impress a lot more next week.