(CNN)A few minutes into New York’s sole Democratic primary debate for governor, incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who is running for a third term — fielded a question that has been on the minds of many: Will he be a candidate for president in 2020?
“You’re not running for president?” asked the debate’s moderator, Maurice DuBois.
“No. I’m running for governor of New York,” said Cuomo, who is fighting a challenge from actor Cynthia Nixon, best known as a co-star of the “Sex in the City” TV series.
Pressed for a direct promise to serve out a full term, Cuomo slammed the door shut on any further speculation about a presidential run.
“The only caveat is if God strikes me dead,” he said. “Otherwise I will serve four years as governor of New York.”
Assuming he wins re-election, Cuomo should be dropped from the short list of possible Democratic candidates for president in 2020.
But that doesn’t mean the governor is ignoring national issues. On the contrary: Cuomo and Nixon may have been lobbing attacks at each other (“Can you stop interrupting?” and “Can you stop lying?) on stage at Hofstra University, but it’s clear that Cuomo and other Democrats have discovered that the quickest, most effective way to draw applause these days is to attack President Trump early and often.
“Today, you have to fight Donald Trump, who is the main risk to the state of New York,” Cuomo said. “He is trying to change the rights and values of New Yorkers and the first line of defense is New York and the governor leads that fight and you need to know how to do it.”
Focusing on Trump helps Cuomo in two ways. By keeping the attention on national affairs, Cuomo shifts it away from the weaknesses in his record in New York. He has been struggling to find ways to grow the sluggish economy of upstate New York, and a corruption scandal recently saw the conviction of a close aide and a top development expert.
Every day spent exchanging insults with the President on Twitter is a day Cuomo doesn’t have to answer questions about how he plans to fix the subways, clean up the contaminated water in an upstate village or rebuild the state’s crumbling roads, bridges and pipes.
And by positioning himself as a principal antagonist of the President, Cuomo gets a second political benefit: He can claim to be a more effective defender of progressive causes than Nixon.
Noting that Trump has attacked him on Twitter regularly, Cuomo turned the conflict into a kind of boast. “I welcome it. Know me by my enemies,” Cuomo said.
All of which left Nixon in a difficult position. Cuomo has more money, more experience and higher name recognition than his challenger, and under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult for Nixon to unseat an entrenched incumbent.
But Cynthia Nixon made an already tough task even harder Wednesday night by making her attacks broad and ideological rather than specific and pragmatic.
Nixon has never served in government in any capacity, and has not managed any large institutions in the public, private or charitable sectors. That contrasts sharply with Cuomo’s decades of experience, which includes two terms as governor, four years as state Attorney General and a stint in the 1990s as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton.
Nixon did deliver a pretty good zinger that partly neutralized the advantage conferred by Cuomo’s resume. “Experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re actually not good at governing,” she said. (Zing!) But she needed to follow up on the line by unfurling —and repeating as often as possible — a list of shortcomings and failed programs that Cuomo has accumulated over the years.
Nixon has positions on the state’s subways, schools, public housing and criminal justice system, for instance, that contrast with Cuomo’s. She has direct political experience as a high-profile advocate for increases in educational funding, and brought much of that passion — but not nearly enough — to the debate.
“New York has the second most unequal education system, when it comes to funding, in the entire nation,” Nixon said early on. But she didn’t deploy the old debater’s trick of circling back to the topic over and over.
She also could have—and should have—noted specific Cuomo economic initiatives that flopped, such as a push for casino gambling that hasn’t delivered as promised and the building of an expensive film and television center that went largely unused and was later sold for a dollar.
With only two weeks to go until Primary Day, Nixon made the most of her one and only shot on the same stage as Cuomo. But the governor won a debate that should have been about his record by changing the subject and making a local New York race all about Donald Trump.