NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – Trailing nearly 50 points in the polls as the New York City mayoral campaign enters its final two weeks, Republican Joe Lhota is ratcheting up his attacks on frontrunner Bill de Blasio.
Lhota, a one-time deputy mayor to Rudolph Giuliani, has unleashed a new negative TV ad, so harsh that the de Blasio campaign dubbed it “fear-mongering” and other elected officials called for it to be pulled. He has also toughened up his rhetoric in the days before a potentially pivotal moment in the campaign, Tuesday’s debate.
“There’s an old Irish expression, ‘If you want to get an audience, start a fight,”’ said Bill Cunningham, a former top adviser to outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“De Blasio is dominating the media and the political landscape right now while some voters still don’t have a clear picture of who Lhota is,” Cunningham said. “If you’re the underdog, you have to land a few punches and back up the champ or you can’t win.”
Lhota’s significant shift in strategy comes on the heels of the campaign’s first debate last week, when the Republican appeared caught off guard by de Blasio’s aggressiveness. Eschewing the play-it-safe strategy that he’d used since winning the Democratic primary, de Blasio aggressively linked Lhota to the national Republican Party that was blamed for shutting down the federal government, a natural play in a city where registered Democrats outnumber the GOP by a factor of 6-to-1.
Not even 12 hours later, Lhota switched gears with an ad that used footage of a recent biker gang attack and black-and-white scenes of the city’s crime-filled past to suggest that a de Blasio administration would end New York’s decades-long drop in crime.
Lhota also toughened his language in his campaign speeches. Gone were the bizarre claims about de Blasio’s honeymoon to Cuba or his 1980s trip to Nicaragua to support that country’s left-wing government. They were replaced by an unwavering focus on public safety.
“There is no doubt in my mind that, under Bill de Blasio – including the people he’s thinking of making police commissioner – crime will go up,” Lhota said Wednesday on Fox, sharply delivering the attacks that appeared strangely muted during the debate.
“I’m getting all good responses from it. I mean, people are worried about jobs, they’re also worried about crime, they’re also worried about making sure their children get a proper education. This is not just a single issue campaign but it’s one in which I will make sure that the people know what I believe to be and how dangerous Bill de Blasio would be as mayor when it comes to crime and crime reduction and pushing us backwards,” said Lhota in defending the ad again on Monday.
De Blasio, the city’s public advocate, responded by saying that Lhota was employing scare tactics and deemed the ad “divisive and negative.”
Speaking Monday, de Blasio said he would not reduce the 34,000-strong police force and would expand the use of technology to help fight crime if he’s elected mayor.
“I think we have done well in our initial efforts on gang intervention strategies, focused deterrent strategies. I think we can use them more effectively and more comprehensively,” said the Democrat.
“I think what we have to fix is the relationship between police and community in a number of communities,” said de Blasio.
Political strategists, however, see little choice but for Lhota to wage a full-on offensive, in part to reassure some of his backers who are growing increasingly nervous about his chances of victory in the Nov. 5 election.
Some of the usually Republican-friendly sectors such as Wall Street and the real estate industry have not backed Lhota. A political action committee formed to support Lhota has raised less money than a new one created to support de Blasio, and the Republican only has about $900,000 cash on hand, about half of what de Blasio has, according to the latest city campaign finance reports.
Veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins said Lhota’s campaign has been painful to watch.
Speaking Monday during a visit to a senior center in Brooklyn, Lhota defended his campaign strategy.
“Need to get the information out about where I stand and all the polls show the majority of New Yorkers stand with me on most of the issues. So I’m going out there and I’m talking about the issues,” Lhota said.
Isaac Abraham, a prominent activist in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, said he hasn’t heard much of Lhota’s platform.
“This campaign is not alive. It’s not there. It is just not there,” Abraham told Diamond.
The Orthodox Jewish community is traditionally a strong GOP base, but Lhota said he’s not concerned with Abraham’s criticism.
“I don’t know who Mr. Abraham is. I have my own advisors in the Hasidic community. People who want to talk about my campaign who know nothing about it, you know, you get what you pay for. There is nothing there,” said the candidate.
A strong debate performance could give Lhota momentum needed to bolster that fundraising, which would allow him to pay for a late TV ad blitz. Pundits suggested that Lhota could play up his own managerial experience – in addition to his role at Giuliani’s City Hall he led the region’s transportation agency through Superstorm Sandy last year – at the expense of de Blasio, whose public advocate office has an annual budget of just over $2 million. New York City had a budget of $70 billion.
“Lhota should say point to his resume and say, here’s what I’ve already done – this is the kind of work that a mayor does,” said Stephen Llano, director of debate at St. John’s University.
Another opening could be Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s declaration last week that he would not support any tax hike, which appears to jeopardize de Blasio’s signature proposal of raising rates on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten.
“Lhota can press that, he can ask if (de Blasio) will abandon that idea or carve from the budget elsewhere? And if so, where?” asked Cunningham.
“He can make it uncomfortable,” Cunningham continued. “And he has little to lose.”
Meanwhile, as WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb reported, a new Quinnipiac poll showed de Blasio maintaining a commanding lead, beating de Blasio by a rate of 68 percent to 24 percent. De Blasio leads among black, white, and Hispanic, and both men and women.
Maurice Carroll of Quinnipiac said does not want to say de Blasio’s campaign is “insurmountable.”
“I hate that word, can’t or inevitable,” he said.
But he added, “Forty-four points — I can’t conceive of anything — any development any eventuality that would win the mayoralty for Lhota.”
Carroll said given his monstrous lead, de Blasio can probably start drafting his inauguration speech.
“There’s literally no one more respected in this country than Secretary Clinton,” said de Blasio. “I think it says to New Yorkers as someone that they entrusted with their United States Senate seat previously believes that the things I’m talking about – the changes we need to make and the approach we need to take – she believes that I’m ready to provide that kind of leadership.”
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