Sen. Chuck Schumer defended his criticisms of Wall Street and his role in passing the health care reform bill and dodged questions about whether he's on the cusp of becoming the Democratic Senate leader in his lone debate with Republican rival Jay Townsend on Sunday night.
Schumer, a veteran debater who polls show is on course to easily capture a third U.S. Senate term, did nothing that could be immediately be considered remotely game-changing during the hourlong debate, hosted by NY1/YNN, at Marist College.
Still, he was poked for close to an hour by Townsend, an upstate political consultant who did his best to get under the Brooklyn pols' skin with what appeared to be occasional success - and yoke him to President Obama. But Schumer stuck to in-depth policy answers, engaging at times with Townsend to suggest he was out of his element or unaware of details.
Townsend gave an uneven and sometimes eyebrow-raising performance in his primary debate against tea party-backed candidate Gary Berntsen in August, in which he smiled preternaturally throughout. This time, he seemed somber but more focused and performed pretty well for a second-time debater.
Both men got hit with a question being discussed in political circles from New York to Washington whether Schumer could be poised to become the majority leader (or, depending on what else happens, minority leader) if Nevada Sen. Harry Reid loses on Nov. 2 to Republican Sharron Angle.
Asked if it wouldn't be good for New York to have a Senate leader from the state, Townsend replied that Schumer had been focused on political factors for much of his tenure.
Schumer didn't answer the question directly about what it would mean for the state, but did say, "I think Harry Reid's gonna win the election, and I'm working hard for him. "
Schumer was also asked about his criticisms of Wall Street and his work on the financial regulation bill, which caused him friction with Mayor Bloomberg and many of his own longtime committed donors, from whom he sought contributions for years, especially as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head.
He defended himself by saying, "You try to defend it when you can, but when Wall Street is wrong you have to go after it."
He added, "When it came to the bill Wall Street, made a lot of mistakes. I'm proud I supported that bill, no matter what enemies I made."
Schumer was also pressed about the mosque near ground zero, which he has generally avoided talking about beyond a one-sentence statement, and the debate was no different. He said, "I am not opposed to the project, which was supported by Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama."
He then pivoted to talking about how he's focusing his energy on getting the 9/11 responders' health bill passed in the Senate.
On another issue - the probe by the SEC and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo into his longtime political consultant Hank Morris, with whom he cut ties years ago - he said, "Anyone who breaks the law should go to jail, absolutely."
Townsend, meanwhile, fielded a question about Republican gubernatorial Carl Paladino and his now nationally known verbal gaffes and comments.
"Paladino used some inappropriate words, he poorly expressed himself and I have told him [that]," Townsend replied, adding, "Carl Paladino is a human being ... Who can forget what Sen. Schumer said to the airline attendant when she asked him to turn off his cell phone?"
That was a reference to a POLITICO story last year about Schumer, flying with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on the Washington shuttle, being told by a flight attendant to turn his phone off as he talked about the health care bill and saying to her departing figure, "Bitch." He later called the attendant and apologized.
The two also mixed it up about trading with China, the cost of the health care bill, the stimulus package --- Schumer asked Townsend what stimulus he "opposed," drawing laughs early --- and the economy upstate.
Schumer seemed to suggest, when discussing gay marriage, that his current support was part of a pragmatic evolution as the country has grown more accepting of it. But Townsend hit him as politically expedient on it.
In one of the odder moments of the debate, Townsend declared that Schumer has a gun permit and asked him, "Are you packing heat? "
Schumer replied that Townsend was inventing it, and that he doesn't own a gun.