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Fealty to Trump Arises as Litmus Test in G.O.P. Debate for N.Y. Governor

If there was any question that Monday’s debate among Republican contenders for governor of New York would be more combative than last week’s Democratic skirmish, it was put to rest quickly.

In the opening moments, Representative Lee M. Zeldin attacked Harry Wilson, a corporate turnaround specialist, as a “Never Trumper” and Republican-in-name-only. Mr. Wilson soon returned fire, saying Mr. Zeldin’s campaign was “disintegrating” and suggesting that he had been approached about running alongside Mr. Zeldin and had turned him down.

Mr. Zeldin, who was chosen as his party’s designee at a party convention this winter, scoffed, even as Mr. Wilson, who also worked in the Obama administration, tried to cut him off.

“This guy doesn’t stop,” Mr. Zeldin said, adding, “You’re on the wrong debate stage, man.”

The verbal scuffle continued, even as another candidate, Rob Astorino, looked on, and a fourth candidate, Andrew Giuliani, situated in a studio nearby, held a fixed smile.

“You’re a child,” Mr. Wilson finally responded.

The explosive exchange typified much of the back-and-forth as the candidates sought to prove and polish their conservative bona fides on topics ranging from gun control to abortion to their deep respect for former President Donald J. Trump.

A Guide to New York’s 2022 Primary Elections

As prominent Democratic officials seek to defend their records, Republicans see opportunities to make inroads in general election races.

  • Governor’s Race: Gov. Kathy Hochul, the incumbent, will face off against Jumaane Williams and Tom Suozzi in a Democratic primary on June 28.
  • The Mapmaker: A postdoctoral fellow and former bartender redrew New York’s congressional map, reshaping several House districts and scrambling the future of the state’s political establishment.
  • Maloney vs. Nadler: The new congressional lines have put the two stalwart Manhattan Democrats on a collision course in the Aug. 23 primary.
  • Questionable Remarks: Carl P. Paladino, a Republican running for a House seat in Western New York, recently drew backlash for praising Adolf Hitler in an interview dating back to 2021.

In doing so, they also sharply differentiated themselves from their Democratic counterparts, especially Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is considered a favorite as the June 28 primary for both parties nears.

The debate also took place against the backdrop of the public hearings by the House committee investigating the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, 2021, and the WCBS-TV moderators — Marcia Kramer and Maurice DuBois — asked early on about the candidates’ feelings about the hearings and about another possible Trump run for president.

Mr. Giuliani, the son of the former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he believed Mr. Trump was “a great president” who he hoped would run again.

“I consider him a good friend,” said Mr. Giuliani, who worked for four years in the Trump White House, adding that he wanted to bring the same “kind of change” to New York that Mr. Trump had brought to America.

Mr. Zeldin, once considered a moderate, has been a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump, voting in the House to overturn the results of the 2020 election. That effort that was led — interestingly enough — by the older Mr. Giuliani. But Mr. Zeldin was slightly more circumspect in his feelings about Mr. Trump’s political prospects, saying, “If President Trump wants to run, he should run,” and adding that he believed the former president would be the next Republican nominee.

Mr. Zeldin, a four-term congressman from Long Island, tried to reel off other issues he felt deserved a federal attention, including illegal immigration, foreign policy and the supply chain. “That’s where Congress should be spending their time right now,” he said.

Mr. Astorino, the former Westchester County executive who was the party’s unsuccessful nominee for governor in 2014, went the furthest in acknowledging the Capitol riots, calling Jan. 6 “a horrible day in our nation’s history,” and saying that Mr. Trump “bears some responsibility” for the mob attack. But he called the hearings “political theater.”

Mr. Astorino generally avoided the verbal sparring going on between Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Wilson in the CBS studio, trying to convey a calmer presence.

“This state is a mess,” he said, adding, “I ran in ’14 and everything has just gotten worse.”

Social issues percolated throughout the evening, with the possible Supreme Court decision on the fate of Roe v. Wade expected this month. Perhaps cognizant of New York’s strong liberal bent — Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one in enrollment — none of the four called directly for Roe to be overturned, though several said there should be restrictions on who can perform abortions and when women can seek them.

Mr. Wilson, the only candidate in the race who supports abortion rights, said he was “not running on a social platform,” while Mr. Astorino said that abortion remained a “really difficult choice” for women.

Mr. Giuliani was forced to participate remotely because he has refused to get the coronavirus vaccine, something he has used as talking point on the campaign trail to rail against government mandates concerning the disease.

In recent weeks, Mr. Giuliani has insisted that he is the candidate to beat — citing a single online poll — even as he has campaigned with his father, who had been prominently featured, often in unflattering ways, during the House hearings.

Still, with early voting beginning on Saturday, Mr. Zeldin has been considered the front-runner because of his party’s backing, his name recognition as a congressman and his robust fund-raising.

The debate comes amid rising hopes for Republicans, who have not won a statewide race for 20 years and lost their last foothold of power in Albany — control of the State Senate — in the 2018 elections. Ms. Hochul has suffered from tepid poll numbers, particularly on issues like crime, on which Republicans have successfully attacked Democrats, including in last year’s elections.

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