Stranger than fiction: N.Y.’s future debated

THE TWO PRESIDENTIAL candidates Matt Santos and Arnie Vinnick found themselves waiting for their stage cues in the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Sunday night’s episode of “The West Wing.”

Without handlers in tow, they found themselves spontaneously agreeing to a face-to-face debate, which if the history of the series — and the closeness of their fictional race — are any indication should be dramatic and stimulating.

And the series writers will have some up-to-the-minute real-life material on which to draw: The two New York City mayoral candidates, incumbent Republican Michael Bloomberg and Democratic challenger Fernando Ferrer, took their own gloves off Sunday in the first of two televised debates before the election Nov. 8.

And even though theirs wasn’t a wholly satisfying face-off, as theater, it did offer up some jabs and zingers.

Blared the Daily News: “Freddie goes for Bloomy’s throat” and the Post posited: “Desperate Dem rips into Mike.”

Although the tabs exaggerated the drama, the debate did win the timeslot, beating out news shows on CBS and NBC with a 3.6 rating/9 share for the hour.

The Big Apple job is oft described as the second biggest in the country, though the issues don’t necessarily dovetail with those at the national level. (Iraq for example got short-shrift Sunday by the two candidates.)

STILL, FOR A CITY as fractious as Gotham and with, as Bloomberg put it, “problems so complex as to defy easy solutions,” it was likely that the one-on-one would be punchy. And with Ferrer 30 points behind in the polls it was also likely that the challenger would be pugnacious.

Consider the snide: “I don’t know what city you’re living in, Mike.”

(That there was no real knockout blow by either side possibly explains the unpropitious 9 a.m. Sunday slot that WABC gave the show. Another debate Monday will be in prime access on WNBC.)

Bloomberg is so far ahead in the polls that he could afford to duck most of his opponent’s blows and to calmly, almost clinically, parry a few of the others.

The incumbent — despite being a Republican in one of the most liberal, Democratic cities in the country — is reckoned the sure winner, with endorsements even from groups (Hispanic orgs and the New York Times) which typically tip their hat for Dems. He has also hugely outspent his opponent, putting $100 million of ads into the coffers of local TV stations and newspapers.

His popularity may also be testament to the old adage that a conservative is simply a liberal who has been mugged. If the surveys are right, under the two most recent mayors, Rudolph Giuliani and Bloomberg, the city is noticeably safer and cleaner than it’s been for two decades. And media-wise, folks are back filming in the city as never before.

Still, Ferrer came out swinging, attacking the mayor at the first opportunity: “Here’s something you won’t hear in a Mike Bloomberg ad: You have a 50% (school) dropout rate. And one out of five New Yorkers lives in poverty.”

The latter theme — that New York has become a city that hugely favors the rich and has left working stiffs behind — underlay most of Ferrer’s uppercuts.

Being the underdog arguably brings more energy to the performance. Ferrer spent the hour staring down his opponent, pivoting toward him, altering his tone and demeanor, even mocking a few of the mayor’s points, while Bloomberg held fast to the lectern, stared at his ABC interlocutors rather than his opponent, and never let his rival get his goat.

At one point, Ferrer baited Bloomberg about his ties to the national Republican party: “Mike, you can’t have it both ways, disclaiming responsibility for the policies you politically and financially support.”

At another juncture, Bloomberg took his opponent to task: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, Freddie, but not to your own set of facts.” And in fact, Ferrer did get his facts wrong several times, demonstrating that incumbents are rarely as out of touch as their opponents are out of the loop.

The former Bronx borough chieftain was particularly scathing about Bloomberg’s spending so much time “globetrotting for the Olympics” and on the “West Side stadium boondoggle” (both of which ended in defeat for the mayor) and not enough on converting vacant buildings to affordable housing or on helping small businesses.

Bloomberg defended those two failed initiatives on the grounds that they would have brought thousands of jobs to the city.

THOUGH NO ONE would describe Bloomberg as charismatic or exhirating on stage, he did defend his corner, with stats if not with an overall vision: a 33% raise to teachers, crime down 20%, 86,000 housing units created. Even deaths by fire are down to 1919 levels, Bloomberg said, even if a number of firehouses have had to be closed.

Some of Bloomberg’s numbers, Ferrer countered; others they argued over, a few were simply too fuzzy for the audience to make heads or tails of.

Still, getting the two guys into the same ring brought home the fact that there is a battle to be fought, however weighted the odds.

Though Washington politicos are probably too caught up in the latest D.C. scandals to have taken notice, “West Wing” fans would all in all not have been disappointed.

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