Paladino Closing in on Cuomo

Tea Party-backed Carl Paladino, the surprise runaway winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary in New York, has closed to within 6 points of Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo according to a new Quinnipiac Poll of likely voters. The result sent shock waves through the New York political establishment as Paladino, once thought to have no chance to win against the popular and well-funded Cuomo, had been trailing by as much as 45 points over the summer and by 37 points in the Quinnipiac poll released just last month.

The Quinnipiac poll together with a Rasmussen Reports survey released earlier this week that showed Paladino trailing by 16 points seems to confirm that the brash Buffalo businessman could have a real shot at pulling the upset.

Since his primary victory on September 14, Paladino has been hammering away at Cuomo, calling him “Prince Andrew,” arrogant, and egotistical, daring the son of former three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo to meet him in a debate on the issues. Earlier this week, the Paladino campaign released a letter to Cuomo that—colorfully—questioned Cuomo’s courage to face questions.

“Andrew, for the first time in your life be a man. Don’t hide behind daddy’s coattails even though he pulled strings to advance your career every step of your way. Come out and debate like a man,” the letter reads. “It’s difficult to understand why you, a polished veteran campaigner, scion of a political dynasty and king-designate, would fear a simple businessman from Buffalo, who candidly has never been in a debate in his life—except maybe in a bar. Frankly, I don’t think you have the cojones to face me and the other candidates in an open debate.”

That kind of no holds barred, politically incorrect language is a hallmark of the Paladino for the People campaign, as the campaign bills itself, and has endeared the 64 year-old Paladino to Tea Party activists who helped carry him to a 63%-37% victory over former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio in the primary.

Cuomo has been caught flat-footed by the ferocity of Paladino’s attacks, reportedly convening his closest advisors to discuss how best to respond. “If a guy says you have no cojones, how do you punch him back, call him an a–hole?” Cuomo reportedly asked his aides. “We have all this stuff on him and we’re on the defensive,” he complained.

Cuomo appeared with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday at City Hall. Cuomo was on hand to pick up the mayor’s endorsement in a hastily arranged press conference that seemed, at least in part, intended as a distraction from the Quinnipiac poll. 

Without mentioning Paladino, Bloomberg said Cuomo had the “guts to take on the entrenched interests,” and the “skill to get big things done.” In thanking the mayor, Cuomo also did not reference Paladino by name.

The Paladino campaign was not impressed. Campaign manager Michael Caputo released a statement on the endorsement in the combative Paladino style.

“Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of Andrew Cuomo is a dog-bites-man story. Of course, two of the biggest backers of the Ground Zero mosque are joining hands against Carl, a staunch opponent of this insult to the American people,” Caputo said, referring to Cuomo’s and Bloomberg’s outspoken support for the controversial proposal.

“His Royal Highness opposes the will of the people on the mosque and subverted the will of the people on term limits [Bloomberg amended the term limits law to run for a third term in 2009], so it’s no surprise Bloomberg is missing the point on this important election and climbing into the same royal coach as Prince Andrew.”

Later in the day, Cuomo addressed the “no cojones” at an Albany news conference.  At least for now, the attorney general chose not to respond in kind to Paladino’s “childish taunts,” saying his was to be a campaign about issues. 

“I am not going to get in a name-calling campaign. I am not going to get into a gutter campaign. I am not going to degrade state government by getting into the gutter in a political campaign,” Cuomo said. That seeming non-answer may be an indication that the Cuomo campaign has not yet decided on a strategy for countering Paladino’s say-anything campaign style.

Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel

By all accounts, Paladino remains a long shot to win in November. But the voters could see Cuomo’s unwillingness or inability to answer Paladino as validation of the charge that he is entitled.

In this respect, Paladino’s strategy of deriding Cuomo could prove to be a shrewd attempt to force the guarded attorney general into a mistake. Paladino is riding a wave of popular anger at Albany and government in general and is backed by an enthusiastic group of supporters. In this unpredictable election year, Carl Paladino just may be crazy like a fox.