New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, and his challenger, city comptroller William Thompson, Jr., participate in the first debate for their 2009 mayoral campaign.
Comptroller Bill Thompson was like the challenger in a boxing match, jumping out at the opening bell -- trying to score a surprise knockout of the champ.
And Mayor Mike Bloomberg, in their first face-to-face debate, tried to brush off the eager beaver, keeping his cool, ducking, weaving and counter-punching.
By simply slugging it out with the mayor toe to toe, Thompson made an impression. For the first time the challenger, who has been outspent about 16-1, was trading punches with the mayor -- and he gave as good as he got.
In the early minutes of the one-hour debate, both men were occasionally flustered. As he tried to make his opening statement, the Mayor was heckled from the rear of the auditorium. He looked pained as moderator Dominic Carter of New York 1 pleaded for order to be restored. Then the questioning began and, while Thompson seemed tentative at first, his confidence seemed to grow and soon he was pounding the mayor and laying out the case against him.
The heart of Thompson’s argument: that Bloomberg, despite two referendums in which the people voted for term limits and despite his promise to support that decision, had reversed himself. That Bloomberg had put his resources behind legislation to overturn the voters’ will.
Bloomberg brushed that off, insisting that the people would still have a choice on Election Day.
The mayor’s strategy was clear. He was running on his record of keeping the city fiscally sound at a time of economic adversity. He was proud of achievements like the ban on smoking in restaurants and office buildings. And he cited statistics that showed that crime was down considerably on his watch.
On education, a sharp divide. The mayor, with pride, saying that under mayoral control, reading and math scores had gone up for the city’s children. Thompson disputed the statistics, saying the youngsters were being trained to pass tests and they were not being truly educated.
The Mayor said several times that the schools were doing a lot better than when Thompson was “running” them. That was not true. Thompson was Board of Education president but various chancellors ran the school system.
Thompson made clear that he was committed to helping the middle class, in the face of tax increases, higher fees and water rates. The mayor said: “I don’t like them like anybody else.” But neither candidate offered any solution.
It was a classic political debate -- the challenger socking it to the incumbent. The office holder trying to ward off the blows and promising a better future.
Thompson was more animated than we’ve ever seen him. He wagged his finger accusingly at the Mayor. He smiled often, while Bloomberg was dour. His is an analytical approach to governing -- and his face and gestures seldom show feelings.
The debate revealed the mayor’s greatest vulnerability: his inability to justify his about-face on term limits.
Meanwhile Thompson proved he could be aggressive. His best shot was when he said the mayor: "It hasn't been about the people of New York, it's been about you."
However, Thompson didn’t offer a vision of the future. And he said he would bring in a whole new team, that people like Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, admired by many New Yorkers, would be replaced.
Adding it all up, the debate, sponsored by the Daily News, New York 1 and WNYC radio, showed that this is a two-man race after all. That Bloomberg’s tsunami of money can’t obscure the fact that there are two candidates vying for this job.
That is good for democracy -- and New York.