ALBANY, N.Y. — For months they've circled each other, the liberal actress and activist looking to knock off the state's consummate political insider, a two-term incumbent and possible presidential candidate. Now, Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo will square off Wednesday in their only scheduled debate before next months' Democratic primary.
The televised exchange at Hofstra University comes two weeks before the state's Sept. 13 Democratic primary. With Nixon trailing in the polls and in fundraising, the debate provides the former "Sex and the City" star with what could be her last good chance to speak directly to voters — and perhaps knock Cuomo off his game.
Look for Cuomo to tout his progressive credentials and his opposition to Republican President Donald Trump while trying to avoid gaffes, such as the one he made two weeks ago when he said America "was never that great."
"The stakes are extremely high for Nixon," said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio, who predicted that she would come armed with 15 to 20 one-liners intended to rattle Cuomo. "She's got to make up an incredible amount of points before she's even in striking distance. She's got to be knowledgeable about the issues, tough but not too tough."
Reflecting the testiness of the race, the two campaigns struggled to agree even on the format and details of the debate. Nixon's campaign first accused Cuomo of ducking earlier debate requests and then said he was trying to control the terms of Wednesday's exchange, demanding that the candidates remain seated during the back-and-forth and not shake hands before the event.
Cuomo's camp, meanwhile, mocked Nixon's campaign for asking that the venue's temperature be set at 76 degrees — significantly warmer than the brisk temperatures favored by Cuomo. Cuomo's campaign said it made no temperature requests.
Polls give Cuomo a lead of 30 percentage points going into the primary. He also has a formidable financial advantage going into the final weeks of the campaign, with more than $20 million in his campaign account compared to $450,000 for Nixon.
The debate, set to be televised on WCBS-TV, will be the first time the candidates have met since Nixon, 52, entered the race this spring. She has aggressively attacked Cuomo from the left, portraying him as a bully and an insider who has failed to address chronic government corruption, income inequality and New York City's aging subways. She's betting on big support from liberals who have long been skeptical of Cuomo, once a centrist who has recently moved further to the left, a shift Nixon's campaign refers to as the "Cynthia effect."
"The polls right now are not capturing the new progressive voters and the hunger for real change," Nixon told reporters in Albany last week, adding that she was more focused on meeting voters than preparing for the debate. "We're talking to people. We've got thousands of volunteers across the state ... we are mobilizing our army."
Cuomo's campaign has touted the governor's liberal accomplishments such as a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, gun control and same-sex marriage. Cuomo, 60, has avoided even mentioning Nixon, spending more time attacking Trump. Cuomo's campaign aides, however, have dismissed Nixon as a dilettante too inexperienced to lead the nation's fourth largest state. The campaign released an advertisement featuring an endorsement from former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday that plays up the issue of experience.
Asked by reporters on Monday how he was preparing for Wednesday's debate, Cuomo had a one-word response.
"Governing," he said.
While there may be more pressure on Nixon, Muzzio said Cuomo, known for his rough edges, will want to avoid a gaffe or comments perceived to be dismissive of his opponent. Cuomo's verbal misstep two weeks ago came when he was criticizing Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. He later said the comment was an "inartful" way of saying that Trump wants to return to a time of greater intolerance and bigotry.
Four years ago, Cuomo refused to debate challenger Zephyr Teachout before the Democratic primary. Teachout went on to win a third of the vote. She is now running for attorney general.
The winner of the Democratic primary faces Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive; independent candidate Stephanie Miner, a former mayor of Syracuse; and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York state by more than 2-1.