Rep. Lee Zeldin took an aggressive stance as the frontrunner in the first, spirited debate of the Republican primary for governor in New York, then fend off a barrage of attacks Monday night by conjuring Trump-esque nicknames for his rivals. .
Zeldin, a Long Island attorney who leads the race’s polls, was almost immediately knocked down by Rob Astorino, the party’s 2014 governor candidate, and Harry Wilson, a businessman.
Wilson called Zeldin a “Cuomo clone,” and said the congressman was loyal to former government leader Andrew Cuomo during his time in the state Senate. Astorino agreed, saying that Zeldin “sided with” Cuomo and “blew it” in Albany.
“I don’t mind taking all three of you here tonight!” In WCBS-TV/Channel 2, Zeldin declared tilt and dismissed his opponents as “Never-Trumper Wilson” and “Rolex Rob”.
Wilson has said he will not vote for former President Donald Trump in 2020, he writes in Nikki Haley. A Rolex wristwatch from Astorino was once seized by the FBI in an investigation that did not lead to charges against the politician.
In a particularly heated exchange, Wilson — a relatively moderate millionaire — said Zeldin had asked him to run on his ticket over the winter.
Zeldin said Wilson lied. “That’s a zero percent chance,” Zeldin said.
“He’s scared — he’s a broken candidate,” Wilson said of Zeldin. “His campaign is disintegrating.”
Zeldin repeatedly refuted that Wilson should run in the Democratic primary against Hochul administration, not in the Republican race. “You’re on the wrong debate podium, man!” said Zeldin.
In an Emerson College poll of the race held last week, Zeldin led the field with 34% voter support, Astorino got 16%, Wilson took 15% and Andrew Giuliani followed with 13%. But Wilson can pick up steam; he was little known before the campaign.
Above the race looms Trump, who has not given approval.
Zeldin has the support of the state Republican Party and is a staunch Trump supporter. He voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election won by President Biden. Giuliani’s father, Rudy, led Trump’s legal war to overturn the election.
And Astorino, the former director of Westchester County, has called Trump a friend, but has also recognized Biden as the winner of the 2020 race.
It is not clear whether Trump will support the race. Primary Day falls on June 28; Monday night’s debate is the only showdown planned in the campaign so far.
But Giuliani, who joined the debate remotely after saying he hadn’t received the COVID vaccination needed to access the CBS Broadcast Center, issued some Trump-esque media criticism, reprimanding a moderator of the debate.
“I’m trying to answer the question here,” he told Marcia Kramer, the moderator, as she quizzed him on vaccine mandates. “It’s bad enough that I’m in another room because you’ve demoted me to this. In any case, let me answer your question.”
“This is a great example of how the media continues to be unfair to conservatives,” Giuliani added.
He said Trump was a “great president” and expressed hope that the 45th commander in chief will run back to the White House.
Zeldin reiterated his support for a Trump run in 2024, before turning his attention to blistering attacks on Wilson.
Wilson called himself a “Reagan conservative,” noting that his daughter’s middle name honors President Ronald Reagan.
On some issues, the candidates showed agreement and consented to their opposition to COVID mandates. But with others, a divorce ensued.
Wilson said he would not push for changes to the state’s robust laws protecting abortion rights while the other candidates took pro-life stances.
“We’re all dads on stage, or in the room where I’m sitting,” Giuliani said from his undisclosed location, describing how fatherhood influenced his stance on abortion.
“I’m pro-life,” Giuliani said. “And I’m not afraid to say it.”