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Carl Paladino Crumbles at Gubernatorial Debate

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Finally, New York got a gubernatorial debate. Seven people, dressed in black, sitting uncomfortably in chairs and looking like mourners at the world's worst funeral. In an important political event strategically broadcast at the same time as a critical baseball playoff game to assure maximum attention.

"Go Yankees," said Andrew Cuomo during his closing statement. By then he was looking very cheerful, as well he might. He won. Or at least emerged unscathed and unhumiliated.

Which is more than you could say for Carl Paladino.

It was not just that Paladino failed to lead the motley crew of third and fourth-party candidates on the stage into a unified us-against-the-frontrunner assault the Democrats had been fearing. Or that, blessedly, he failed to trigger that sex-scandal explosion he'd been hinting at.

Paladino was actually the weakest performer on the stage, no small achievement when the other chairs are filled with folks like Jimmy McMillan of the Rents Are Too Damn High party, and ex-madam Kristen Davis of the Anti-Prohibition Party. The Republican nominee seemed confused, or maybe slightly medicated. He couldn't even deliver his opening and closing statements efficiently.

He kept getting Medicare and Medicaid mixed up. He seemed taken aback by the time restraints and kept getting cut off halfway through his point. When given a chance to summarize his plans to clean up Albany, Paladino laughed nervously then said something vague about giving people something to hold onto. At that, he pounded his chest, an effort which unfortunately also involved pounding the little mic attached to his tie. The hollow thudding you heard next was the sound of what was left of the Republican gubernatorial campaign having a fatal heart attack.

Given the fact that the latest Times poll found only 11 percent of voters have a favorable view of the guy, Paladino would have had to do something absolutely remarkable to turn things around. Ascending into heaven, maybe. He might have had a better chance to simply make Cuomo look terrible, too.

Didn't happen. The Democratic attorney general, in a rare public appearance during a campaign that he seems to have been conducting from a well-camouflaged tree house in the Adirondacks, was clear, crisp and not particularly controversial in laying out his current neo-Republican platform: Albany is terrible. Taxes are way, way, way too high. Lots of fraud and waste and duplication of services. Which the Cuomo administration will end.

"This guy gets in, you're going to be laid off, your pension is gone," warned Charles Barron, the city councilman now posturing as the standard-bearer for something called the Freedom Party. He was the only participant who suggested Cuomo's rescue plan, if successful, would involve some serious pain. And Warren Redlich of the Libertarian party was the only one to press the question of special interest contributions to the Cuomo campaign.

It was Paladino who wanted all the minor-party candidates invited to this show, but the person the arrangement helped was Cuomo. On occasion, one of the others managed to land a brief zinger, or raise a question about the front-runner. (Barron wondered why, if Cuomo was so tough on political corruption, the notorious Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez had managed to sail along uninvestigated for so long.) But the layers of 90-second answers and 30-second rebuttals, doled out one by one through the long line of candidates made it impossible for any attack to draw blood.

And instead of lending a hand, Paladino bumbled. "I was sayin' on education. We should be destructuring our state board of education," he said during one of his turns. " ... as to Medicare, no person on Medicare today will feel any effect --- excuse me, not Medicare, Medicaid. Thirdly ..." At which point the timer went off.

In events like this, the viewers usually come away talking about the more colorful third party contenders and in Monday's debate, Jimmy McMillan was sort of an Unforgettable Also-Ran. Rent, he said "is like a cancer. It will heal itself if you went about it in the right manner." Davis, whose platform called for legalizing and taxing marijuana and casinos, was not only more cogent than Paladino, she had a winning way of finishing up her statements ahead of the buzzer.

After which Paladino said Medicare was "a horror story" although he probably meant Medicaid again.