Office of the Governor/MTA

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon (file photos).

At a debate formatted to his strengths and bracketed by his campaign commercials, Andrew Cuomo just managed to hold his own against rookie candidate Cynthia Nixon on Wednesday night.

That the governor was unable to dominate the debate, given his decades in public service and nearly dozen years in statewide office, would seem a moral victory for Nixon. She did have the advantage of a life on stage and was facing a candidate who hadn’t participated in a one-on-one primary debate in 16 years. She also had little to lose and everything to gain from an all-out blitz on the front-runner.

The governor, well ahead in polls and in fundraising, avoided devastating gaffes in the face of relentless attacks by Nixon but forfeited chances to articulate a vision for the state in favor of one-liners about his opponent’s tax status and relationship with Mayor de Blasio.

Nixon’s campaign had contended the CBS-2 debate was arranged to the governor’s specifications. Indeed, there were no opening or closing statements and, contrary to what has become standard practice, the candidates were not allowed to question their opponent.

The debate stage looked like a small restaurant at the hour of an early-bird special: The two anchors were seated at one table, Cuomo alone at another, Nixon solo at a third. There were blue tablecloths, though no candles.

The first question from CBS-2 anchor Maurice DuBois was a about how “many New Yorkers” wanted to know why Nixon was running and how, despite her lack of governing experience, she would manage a state of 18 million people.

The actress and education advocate argued she was a better bet for the people of New York than a “corrupt corporate Democrat.” She scorned Cuomo’s progressive credentials — doubting his support for healthcare reform, mocking his failure to codify reproductive rights.

Nixon offered a strong defense of her bold proposals for single-payer healthcare and marijuana legalization, and was articulate in explaining her call for permitting public-sector unions to strike.

“This is the kind of change the Democratic party should be embracing,” she said of her healthcare plan.

Nixon did look unprepared on a question about the governor’s decision to deploy state troopers to New York City, pivoting far too quickly to arguing that resources should be diverted from law enforcement to education—passing up a golden opportunity to project competence on public safety.

And she never took an opportunity to press her case that Cuomo had enabled Republican control of the State Senate by failing to exert significant effort for Democratic challengers and for—at the very least—tolerating the Independent Democratic Conference that for seven years allied with the GOP to strengthen the Republican hold on the legislature’s upper body.

But she maneuvered to take control of the debate at several points, often pivoting to attack the governor’s record: She answered a question on homelessness in part by highlighting the larger housing crisis and the huge amounts of real-estate industry money that have flowed into Cuomo’s accounts. She interrupted the governor multiple times. He pleaded for her to stop. “I’ll stop interrupting when you stop lying,” she replied

The transit system was a focal point of the debate. Cuomo touted his overarching infrastructure program—LaGuardia Airport, the Javitz Center, the replacement of the Tappen Zee Bridge—and blamed subway problems on the system’s age and what he said was the city’s unwillingness to foot its share of the bill. Nixon insisted the MTA was a creature of the state and that Cuomo “stole” millions from the authority to fund other budget items.

She said she’d have the state provide funds so the MTA would not have to raise fares as planned. Cuomo said he’d do that only if the city went in 50-50. It was one of several times where Cuomo agreed with Nixon’s policy thrust but disagreed on particulars of implementation. He worried about the transition costs of a move to single-payer healthcare, and took issue with her plan to direct the funds generated by marijuana legalization to communities harmed by unequal drug-law enforcement.

Cuomo at one point asked his labor supporters in the audience to demonstrate the support he has from unions, and they complied with a loud cheer. “The hallmark of my administration has been representing the working men and women of this state,” he said. Nixon, however, noted his late conversion to supporting a significant rise in the state minimum wage.

Nixon, asked whether her proposal to lift the law barring public-sector union strikes would create public chaos, said unions would refrain from walking out unless they had public support, and said the teacher strikes around the country had been as much about fighting for resources for students as for teachers’ wages and benefits. “Our labor unions are the most important counter-balance we have to corporate power and greed.”

Cuomo, who has received millions in donations from business interests, oddly accused Nixon of being the corporate candidate—a reference to her operating a corporation to handle her acting gigs, which she said was a common practice. He faulted her for donating money to advocacy groups that later endorsed her, and accused her of using her corporate status to ask de Blasio for favors. Cuomo delivered most of these charges as CBS-2 showed both candidates on a split-screen: Cuomo lobbing charges, Nixon wrenching her face into a quizzical look. When Nixon was on the attack, Cuomo was often looking down at his notes.

Asked if he would stay in Albany or run from president, Cuomo pledged to serve his full third term if re-elected. He did commit to continuing to fight Donald Trump, a theme the governor tried to emphasize but played little role in the debate.