Lee Zeldin lost the room.
Last night at the Kodak Center, and last night at my house.
It was the Newsmax debate, the first one before a live audience, and about three-quarters through, the frontrunner wasn’t the frontrunner anymore.
At the Kodak Center, as he became shrill, condescending and attacking under pressure from his opponents, the crowd turned against him and the dislike became audible. When you’re getting booed in front of an audience of the faithful, well, things aren’t looking good.
And at my house, as he became shrill, condescending and attacking under pressure from his opponents, he lost my wife and he probably lost me.
It was a poor showing, and it unsettled stomachs across Republican New York.
It was like making the turn onto the homestretch and realizing you’re out of horse.
I know I made the case for Zeldin’s candidacy just two days ago. And I have done so before, and repeatedly. But last night was ugly. Last night was where it got real. It was the pissy arrogance so common among New York governors, on full display in the person of the guy who will probably lose by a significant margin on November 8.
But first, the good news.
What a refreshing experience for Republicans. Any one of the candidates on that stage would make an excellent governor for this or any other state. Further, the down-ballot candidates – Harry Wilson, Rob Astorino and Andrew Giuliani – were wonderful, and impressive by their strength.
None of them was a joke, each of them was strong, all made good points and showed decency and intelligence.
Certainly, Andrew Giuliani is young and has limited experience, but his heart is in the right place and his instincts are correct, and he handled himself very well, with courtesy, courage and conviction.
Harry Wilson is a centrist, and a friend of Democrats, and he’s pro-choice. He’s also polite and gracious, and he seems smart and detail oriented. He might have a hard time winning a Republican primary, but in a state whose people 2-to-1 choose to be Democrats, maybe the Republican primary isn’t the best bellwether of the state’s interests.
You might disagree with Harry Wilson, but you don’t dislike him, and you feel like he knows what he’s doing, and that if he got elected he would do a good job. He was my wife’s first choice, and he impressed me as well. He clearly is a person of substance and thoughtfulness with perhaps the best chance of winning in the general election.
Rob Astorino was the most polished man on the stage. I’ve long admired him and his skills, and last night I only admired him more. He was calm, cool and collected, and he has Lee Zeldin dialed in, getting him from zero to meltdown in the blink of an eye. While Zeldin was getting exasperated and petty, Astornio was masterful and in charge, like back when I was a kid and watched Muhammed Ali play with other fighters in the ring.
If a governor has to be in charge of his or her emotions, and able to be tactical and purposeful under stress, Rob Astorino goes to the head of the class and Lee Zeldin gets a timeout.
It was three guys who gave me hope and one guy who gave me agita.
I don’t want to be disrespectful to Zeldin, who has campaigned long and hard and figured out how to win the party-leadership game, but he acted like a punk. When pressured by his opponents, he came apart. He got handled by Andrew Giuliani, for crying out loud, and the uber-polite Harry Wilson was able to spank him. If you can’t handle opposition for an hour when you know it’s coming, how can you possibly be expected to handle the stresses of being governor? If your primary opponents freak you out, how are you possibly going to stand up to heavyweights like the speaker and the majority leader?
Sitting on the couch watching Zeldin come off like an unstable third-grader, I started to wonder if maybe the state chairman was wrong to push Elise Stefanik aside for Lee Zeldin. Sitting on the couch watching Zeldin shout at booing Republicans, I feared that this once-in-a-generation Pataki moment might be lost.
And then the moderator asked if the candidates would endorse the primary winner, even if it wasn’t them.
There were three yesses, and Lee Zeldin being Andrew Cuomo.
And then the TV turned off and my wife and I looked at each other.
A Zeldin and an undecided had flipped to two Astorinos, and a couple of hopes that Astorino and Wilson can work together, and the sick anticipation of a likely November rout of Zeldin by Hochul.
Lee Zeldin lost the room, and it looks like he's going to lose a whole lot more.