"He wants to throw the conservative Republican Party out the window in front of the bus," Ognibene said.
Bloomberg not only missed a chance to defend himself against the constant pummeling, but to show off some personality, as Ferrer and Ognibene did in a round of quick-fire questions to which only a "yes" or "no" answer were permitted.
Voters learned that "yes," Ferrer has smoked marijuana, but "no," neither candidate on stage owns an iPod or has ever watched "Desperate Housewives." "Yes," both candidates like Bloomberg as a person, but both took issue with his anti-coffee policy for subway riders.
Ferrer even admitted to breaking the coffee law. The light questions make one wonder: Does Bloomberg drink the joe or wear white ear buds? How's a voter to know?
Ferrer earlier advocated five debates, just as Bloomberg had when he was a newly minted moderate running for mayor against Mark Green four years ago. This year, with favorable poll numbers on his side, Bloomberg whittled down the number of times he'd face Ferrer.
Because the mayor is financing his own campaign without the help of public matching funds, he is under no technical obligation to participate in Campaign Finance Board debates such as Thursday's. And as an incumbent with a lead in the polls, analysts say Bloomberg is playing a safe card by minimizing his opponent's visibility.
"I'm not worried about debating anybody," Bloomberg said. "I'm looking forward to debating my opponent."
Bloomberg and his allies have maintained that two debates are enough, and that no more than two debates were held in the past two mayoral elections. No standard officially exists. In 1977, when Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo squared off in the Democratic primary runoff, they debated 14 times in 11 days.
Despite boos and jeers from the Harlem audience when Ognibene sang President Bush or Rudy Giuliani's praises, his conservative platform didn't get bashed Thursday by Ferrer. Rather, Bloomberg's void sucked in all the heat in the room. Even when the candidates were allowed to ask each other one question, each took the opportunity to suggestively rip the mayor rather than put each other on the spot.
Ferrer asked what Ognibene thought of the mayor's perceived gay marriage flip-flop. And Ognibene asked Ferrer: "what kind of arrogance does it take for a mayor on New York … to not take part in this debate?"
Ferrer looked to the empty podium at his left and said: "In a word, although I have more words than that, 'breathtaking.'"
By Christine Lagorio