By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — The seven gubernatorial candidates are set to duke it out at their first and only scheduled debate Monday night, and political pundits are predicting fists will fly.
Democratic front-runner Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will take the stage at Hoftstra University on Long Island at 7 p.m., along with Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, who has dominated the headlines recently after making anti-gay comments and personal attacks on Cuomo.
Joining them will be a host of other hopefuls, including a former Black Panther and the self-professed "Manhattan Madam," who claims to have run the prostitution ring that brought down former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
"Given that this is 'Alice in Wonderland,' I don't know what to expect," said Baruch College politics Prof. Doug Muzzio ahead of the debate, which will reportedly have bouncers on the sidelines — just in case.
The debate will start with a round of questions, where each candidate will have 90 seconds to answer and then one minute to rebut. The floor will then be opened to questions from the audience, candidates said.
Experts agreed that, after two weeks in the spotlight, all eyes will be on Paladino, who is expected to pound Cuomo on his record in office.
"Clearly, everybody's looking at Paladino to see what he's going to do and what Cuomo's going to do in response," Muzzio said.
He said Paladino can be angry, but needs to focus on substantive issues if he wants to gain any ground.
"Unless Cuomo implodes or explodes the race isn’t going to change," he said.
Just before the debate, Paladino campaign manager Michael Caputo tried to lower expectations, stressing Paladino's inexperience.
"The bottom line is Carl's never done this before. Ever," he said.
Asked what he'd done to prepare his candidate, Caputo said, "I prayed.
"At the end of the day, it really is just a wild card, because you really don't know what this format's going to bring," he said. "We're kind of sitting on the edge of our seats just like you are."
Still, he added, the debate is critical.
"With a good performance tonight, I believe we can turn this race around," he said.
The latest New York Times poll puts Cuomo far ahead of Paladino, with the Attorney General earning the support of 59 percent of likely voters to Paladino's 24.
Only 11 percent of polled likely voters said they had a favorable view of Paladino, the Times said.
Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf said he expects the other candidates to join Paladino and pile on Cuomo throughout the debate.
"Cuomo's the target," Sheinkopf said. "In politics, whenever you're behind you'll go after the guys who's winning the race."
And Cuomo may have several other challengers to watch out for.
With Paladino wounded, pundits are focusing on another man: Brooklyn City Councilman and Freedom Party candidate Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and seasoned debater.
Sheinkopf said Barron "can create real problems" for Cuomo by mobilizing a protest vote that could attract up to 50,000 voters who would otherwise vote Democrat.
Barron said he believes he can get more than 3 million registered Blacks and Latinos out to vote and slammed the mainstream media for cutting him short.
"I think that we have a great chance of winning," Barron said, praising the debate as "a great opportunity for those who have been locked out."
Libertarian Party candidate Warren Redlich said his chances are looking up, too. Because he is the only other candidate who stands to the right of Cuomo, Redlich said that if Cuomo stumbles Monday and voters decide he's not for them, they'll have no place to turn but him.
"I'm the only choice left," he said.
Also getting their chance in the spotlight will be Kristin Davis of the Anti-Prohibition Party, who hopes to legalize prostitution, marijuana and casino gambling, Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is 2 Damn High Party, and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, who assured that as a former Marine, if things get heated, he'll be prepared:
"If they start swinging, I can defend myself," he said. "I'll be cool."