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Cuomo, Nixon Square Off In Long-Awaited Democratic Primary Debate

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Governor Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon each made their case to New York's Democratic voters in a highly-anticipated primary debate at Hofstra University Wednesday night.

Hofstra, which has hosted presidential debates including the September 2016 slugfest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, said close to 200 journalists from local, national and international media outlets, including Germany, Japan and Norway, would be in attendance on Wednesday night.

The incumbent Cuomo previously told CBS2 he's prepared "by governing," while progressive challenger Nixon said she's been focused on getting her message to voters.

"I'm doing what I've done all this campaign. I'm going to voters and I'm talking to them about the issues that they care most about," she said ahead of the showdown.

WATCH: Entire Debate Between Gov. Cuomo & Cynthia Nixon

To kick off the at-times combative exchange, CBS2's Maurice DuBois introduced the candidates ahead of their one-and-only debate leading up to the September primary election. Without opening or closing statements, DuBois asked Nixon why she was running and what qualified her to run the state of New York.

"I'm a lifelong New Yorker," Nixon said. "I grew up here. I'm a public school graduate, I'm a public school parent to three kids, and I'm somebody who's been fighting for LGBTQ equality, women's rights, and abortion rights, and most especially better funding and more equitable funding for New York schools for the last 17 years."

New York Democratic Primary Debate In Photos

"That's one of the main reasons I'm running, because New York has the second most unequal education system when it comes to funding in the entire country."

"I think that experience doesn't actually mean that much if you're not actually good at governing," she continued. "I think Governor Cuomo is an astute politician, he's a cracker jack fundraiser, but when you look at how he's broken the New York City subway and you look at how he's handed over control of the state senate to the Republicans, if you look at the incredible corruption in his administration... I think you see that an Albany (outsider) has a chance to clean up the corruption in Albany."

CBS2's DuBois followed up, pressing once more for what in her background would qualify her for the office of governor.

"I have been a longtime activist for public schools, that means I've been organizing rallies, meeting with legislators, shepherding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity through but also in terms of more hands on-type experience," Nixon said. "I was instrumental in a group Fight Back New York that laid the groundwork for marriage equality, and we raised $800,000, we targeted state senators -- Democratic and Republican -- who voted no on marriage and continued to do so."

Governor Cuomo responded, following a brief nod to the late Senator John McCain and an apparent jab at President Trump.

"The flags in the state of New York will be at half-staff regardless of what Washington does," Cuomo said.

Regarding the upcoming election, Cuomo said the job of governor "isn't about politics or advocacy," rather it's about "doing."

"This is real life," the governor said. "Governor of New York you're running a $170 billion budget. You're in charge of fighting terrorism, you're there in the case of fire and floods and emergencies and train wrecks. You have to deal with a legislature that's very, very difficult, and today you have to fight Donald Trump."

Cuomo called the president the "main risk to the state of New York."

"He is trying to change the rights and values of New Yorkers," he said. "The first line of defense is New York, and the governor leads that fight and you need to know how to do it."

CBS2's DuBois then asked the governor whether he could promise New Yorkers that he wouldn't run for president in 2020. Cuomo has long been considered a possible presidential contender, but said Wednesday that despite his disagreements with the president death would be the only reason he wouldn't serve out a full third term.

"We're not going to let him bring his extreme conservative politics to this state," Cuomo said. "It ends in New York."

Nixon replied, once again touting her progressive chops and questioning those of the incumbent.

"We already have a corrupt corporate Republican in the White House, we don't need a corrupt corporate Democrat in Albany as his main opposition," she said. "We need to oppose Donald Trump not just with rhetoric but with policy."

"If you really care about a president that's rolling back Obamacare, why haven't you fought harder for single-payer? If you really care about women's reproductive health, why have you prioritized Republican leadership in the Senate over the Reproductive Health Act which would have codified Roe vs. Wade into law here? When we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, why have you not fought for the Climate and Communities Protection Act?"

Cuomo responded, with a laundry list of progressive initiatives he says he's spearheaded under office.

"New York is the state that is suing Donald Trump for ripping babies from the arms of their mothers, saying we will not cooperate with ICE they're a bunch of thugs," Cuomo said. "We said we will sue them if they violate any criminal laws in the state of New York."

"As far as protecting a woman's right to choose, I said if Trump overrules it we're going to pass it in the state of New York. It'd be a top priority. We need a Republican Senate to pass it."

CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer then switched gears, asking the governor about New York City's embattled subway system and whether or not he's satisfied with the so-called "rescue plan" after one year.

The governor replied, saying the problem goes beyond the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"(The city's subway system) has been declining for decades," Cuomo said. "It is 600 miles of track, we have 40 year old subway cars, we have 100 year old switches which were then doused with Hurricane Sandy."

The governor called for a "massive investment" from both the city and the state.

"I need the city and the state to both fund it," calling once more for congestion pricing as a long-term funding stream.

CBS2's Kramer followed up, asking if the state would consider cancelling a planned fare hike and have the state make up a reported $350 million transit short fall.

"The state cannot fund the MTA without sharing it with the city," Cuomo said. "If the city will do it 50/50, I will do it."

"We have to be real and truthful if you want progress. You need the city and the state to both share the fiscal responsibility, period."

Nixon pounced, calling it "unconscionable" for the state to think about raising fares on a "system that is working so poorly."

"As someone who is on the subway literally every day, I know first hand how delays have tripled under Andrew Cuomo," she said. "How trains are slower now than in 1950. How we have the worst on-time record of any major transit system in the entire country."

CBS2's Kramer interjected, asking if she'd delay the fare and pick up the shortfall if elected.

"I absolutely would, but Governor Cuomo knows the MTA is controlled by the governor," Nixon said. "It's a state agency and to pretend it's anything else is completely disingenuous."

"Yes, it preceded Andrew Cuomo but he stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the MTA budget for his pet projects that have nothing to do with it."

Nixon concluded, charging the governor "used the MTA like an ATM." Cuomo jabbed back, saying his opponent lives in "the world of fiction, I live in the world of reality."

"We need $33 billion, the state can't do it," the governor said. "It's a shared city, state responsibility and I say let's do it 50/50. Let's do congestion pricing, that's the honest and truthful answer."

The topic shifted to single-payer healthcare, with CBS2's DuBois asking about Nixon's proposal and how she'd suggest paying for it.

"We can insure all New Yorkers with a single-payer Medicare for all," Nixon said. "We can do it better, we can do it cheaper, we can do it with no copays, with no deductibles, and with 98 percent of New Yorkers would pay less for their healthcare than they do now."

DuBois followed up, citing a study that determined a single-payer system would triple the state's tax rate for an average family from six percent to 18 percent.

Most recent polls leading up to Wednesday's debate have had Cuomo ahead of Nixon, whose camp has been critical of the governor for only agreeing to a single debate. The challenger replied, citing the long term healthcare savings the average family would see.

"What we would have is a payroll tax to pay for it, it would be taken out of people's payrolls the same way social security is taken out," Nixon said. "It would be an overall savings for 98 percent of New Yorkers, and it would be an enormous savings for employers here."

Nixon continued, adding her plan could create upwards of 200,000 jobs since employers would no longer be responsible for providing healthcare.

"This is the kind of change that our Democratic party should be embracing in order to address the incredible inequality here," said Nixon. "We can insure all our people and we can do it at enormous savings, not only to individuals and to employers but to the state itself."

Cuomo responded, saying "in theory" a single payer system works that said transitioning to such a system would prove much more difficult and costly on a state level.

"Where do you get the $200 million short-term, which would double the tax burden and take money from everything else, to get to single payer? California tried to do it, Vermont tried to do it, nobody has done it successfully," Cuomo said. "It is the right idea, it should be explored... the real thing we need to do is have a president of the United States who understands that healthcare is not a luxury, it is a human right and it'd have to be done on the federal level."

Nixon then attempted to tie the governor to the recent conviction of his former top aide, Joe Percoco, on charges that he accepted bribes from companies seeking state economic development funds. She said Cuomo was either complicit or ignorant about what was going on in his administration. "Either corruption or incompetence, which is it?"

Cuomo responded that he didn't know about Percoco's activities and said he would push for greater ethics reforms if re-elected.

While several of Nixon's attacks appeared to irritate the governor, they did not provoke any significant gaffes — such as the governor's comment earlier this month that America "was never that great." Cuomo later said the remark was "inartful."

The topic then shifted to the topic to marijuana legalization, an issue Nixon has long-supported. The challenger called the topic a "racial justice issue."

"People across all racial lines use marijuana at roughly at the same rates, but the arrests from marijuana are 80 percent black and Latino," Nixon said. "We need to not only legalize marijuana here, but when this multi-billion dollar industry comes to New York we need to prioritize the individuals and the communities that have been the most harmed by the war on drugs."

CBS2's DuBois then asked Nixon what she'd tell her children about using drugs and marijuana.

"We're not talking about children using marijuana, we're talking about adults," she said. "In New York State it's been legal for white people for a long time, and now it's time it's live for everybody else."

"I would say that people don't choose to use marijuana for its legality or illegality, what we need to stop is that we need to stop the very uneven arrests of people of color."

Cuomo replied, saying racial injustice doesn't start with marijuana, rather with "lack of housings, lack of schools, of job opportunities."

"In the criminal justice system itself, it's also prevalent," he continued. "It's not a coincidence that a lot of people in jail are people of color."

Cuomo then pointed to a January report his office commissioned, which found the benefits of legalization would outweigh the risks. When pressed on what he tells his children about using marijuana, the governor called it a "personal decision" and was forthcoming of his use of the drug in college.

CBS2's Kramer turned the topic over to the newly built Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, and whether or not the tolls would go up. In response, the governor promised the rate would remain the same until 2020. After that, it would depend on the state's finances at the time.

Following heated exchanges on topics ranging from mandatory bereavement leave, to unions, to the New York City Housing Authority, the candidates were asked whether they would seek the endorsement of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The liberal Democrat has had a long, frosty relationship with Cuomo, and has been a close ally of Nixon's.

Neither candidate said yes. Nixon said she's running her own campaign and isn't taking direction from anyone, while Cuomo said that he wouldn't try to tell the mayor how to vote.

Hofstra University political scientist Craig Burnett said he didn't see a clear winner in the debate, and that both candidates can claim some accomplishments. Nixon, he said, had an opportunity to lay out her progressive vision for the state, whereas Cuomo held his own and avoided any serious missteps that could go viral and change the race.

"Ideally Nixon would have wanted this debate to happen three months ago," he said. "She would have wanted three or four of them, as a way to get her message out. But this was it."

Voters will cast their ballots on September 13. The Democratic primary winner faces Republican Marc Molinaro, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and independent Stephanie Miner in November. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by more than 2-1.

You can watch Wednesday's debate in its entirety in the embedded video above.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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