"The circus came to town Monday night, a seven-ring affair that featured candidates for New York governor. Though voters may have expected a spirited exchange between the two frontrunners, Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino, what they'll likely remember are the self-described madam who provided escorts to Eliot Spitzer, the former Black Panther and, most of all, the "Rent Is Too Damn High" Party candidate.
Sporting a Hulk Hogan beard and wearing black gloves throughout the debate held at Hofstra University, the "rent guy" was Jim McMillan, a Vietnam vet and karate teacher who made his campaign platform loud and clear by shouting "The rent is too damn high!" nine times during the debate. He could well be counted as the winner of the debate -- if you measure it by the reality show contract he could well be offered on the grounds that he is a walking entertainment center, a mash-up between Samuel L. Jackson's character in "Pulp Fiction" and Hogan in his wrestling heyday.
This was political theater at its most bizarre, a cross between "NewsHour" and "The Maury Show." There were more outbursts of laughter than applause for candidate positions on the issues. Kristin Davis, a former madam who wants to legalize prostitution, answered a question on taxes by saying "Businesses will leave this state quicker than Carl Paladino at a gay bar." She compared her former business to the MTA, with the only difference being hers had one set of books, was always on time, and kept the customers happy.
How could anybody pay attention to the straight-edge frontrunner, Cuomo, with such antics going on? Ahead in the polls by more than 20 points, the Democrat and New York attorney general seemed the odd man out, notable for his stiffness and lack of entertainment value in this setting. Playing it straight, Cuomo asserted that he knows the state "like nobody else on this stage" but tapped into voter discontent with the establishment by adding, "I understand the disgust at Albany and I share it."
Paladino, making news recently for baring his teeth at a reporter and vowing "to take you out, buddy," kept his temper under wraps. Some observers had expected the Republican standard bearer to provide the freak show antics, but he was quiet as a church mouse and reserved as an altar boy. (One member of the press even described him as "a cuddly grandpa.") In this regard he did better than expected; given that Cuomo did as expected, you could say Paladino came out ahead. He looked like the underdog rather than the media's portrayal of him as the human time bomb.
There were serious issues discussed: The state's $8 billion deficit, the 8.2 percent unemployment rate, inflated taxes.
"Our Medicare costs are wrought with fraud, waste and abuse," Paladino said. "This bureaucracy in Albany forces their mandates and their policies down on local school districts. The centralization of these policies with faceless people and in an environment totally unaccountable to the people is bad."
But somber assessments like that were largely lost in an event that too often resembled a "Saturday Night Live" parody. The antics of the third party candidates carried the day, and that, in the end, may be a golden egg for Paladino, who may not have fared so well in a one-on-one debate with the man he trails, Cuomo."