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For Cuomo and Schumer, Nothing to Win in Debates

Andrew Cuomo has a 24-point lead in the most recent poll against Republican Carl Paladino in New York's governor's race and has $20 million in campaign cash. Charles Schumer is 21 points ahead of Jay Townsend in the U.S. Senate race and $23 million in his campaign account.

So why won't the powerful and front-running Democrats debate?

For challengers low on cash and low in the polls, there's little risk to a live televised debate. A TV debate is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads they can't hope to afford. Even a mistake would be worth the shot. For a front-runner in control of the race, however, there's nothing but downside, at least in terms of campaign strategy.

"Debates are essential," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, a frequent sponsor of candidate forums. "There's been more than enough mud thrown and negativity ... but actually not enough substantive airing of the significant issues."

She said the league has been sending letters and calling on the Cuomo and Schumer campaigns to debate their opponents.

"There has always been a Rose Garden strategy if you are an incumbent," she said of the presidential tactic of avoiding challengers. "However, if you disregard the voters, look what happened to Mr. Lazio."

Rick Lazio lost the Republican primary for governor Sept. 14 in a shocking landslide to Paladino, whom Lazio refused to debate.

The Cuomo campaign had no further comment on plans to debate.

"Andrew Cuomo is hiding from the people," Paladino said Tuesday. "He wants to be disrespectful to the people and not respond."

Cuomo has repeatedly said he's "open" to debate. But Cuomo, who said he's his own campaign strategist, said the details of the debate are up to his campaign staff. He wouldn't explain if being open to debate means he is committing to one.

As for Schumer, the campaign has "received several requests and in the process of going through them," said Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon. "We'll be responding to the invitations soon."

The candidates for New York's other Senate seat, Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Joseph DioGuardi, plan to debate.

Townsend, a political consultant, said he's disgusted by Schumer's failure to debate so far.

"We're in a day and age when I think the public expects a person, even a president, to stand before voters and debate," he said. Five debates sought by news organizations have been canceled so far, he said. "He's got to stand there in a debate and explain why this ... stimulus bill didn't work."

Four years ago, Democrat Eliot Spitzer had two debates in the governor's race before the Democratic primary and one afterward.

In 1998, then Rep. Schumer challenged three-term incumbent Sen. Alfonse D'Amato to eight more debates after two were already scheduled. A Schumer spokesman then, Howard Wolfson, said D'Amato didn't "have the guts" to debate and Schumer called it "the best opportunity to speak directly to voters."

This year, no one is even sure of the number of almost daily debates among attorney general candidates seeking the Democratic nomination his summer and fall. Some days had more than one debate on TV, radio and at civic groups.

Even the state comptroller candidates — embroiled in a traditionally little noticed race — had a statewide televised debate Monday. The attorney general candidates meet Friday.