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In their only debate, four candidates for governor spar

Ryan Delaney/WRVO & Zack Seward/WXXI
Candidates for New York governor, from left, the Green Party's Howie Hawkins, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

The four candidates for governor of New York met on a stage together in Buffalo Wednesday night for likely the only time this fall.

The debate began with questions of economic development, hydrofracking and political corruption. It soon turned into a series of no longer on-topic jabs between Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino, the executive of Westchester County.

Cuomo is seeking his second term as governor.

While Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins stuck to his typical issues and facts-based progressive talking points, and little-known Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott mostly seemed happy just to be on stage, the two major party candidates spent most of their allotted time for answers hitting each other on who was less law-abiding and politically extreme. 

The debate, hosted by public media outlet WNED/WBFO and broadcast statewide, was one of the few times Astorino has had a chance to hit Cuomo in the same room, whom he trails by more than 20 points in most polls.

The exchanges quickly became heated when moderators brought up the Cuomo administration's efforts to fight political corruption.

Instead of being the "White Knight" he promised to be and cleaning up corruption, Astorino said Cuomo is "swimming in a cesspool" of it.

Cuomo said he stopped the special commission he formed to investigate Albany corruption because it had done its job. He then brought up allegations of criminal doings of Astorino.

The accusations are "outrageous," Cuomo said.

Cuomo dismissed Astorino as too conservative for the state. He cited his work to pass tax cuts and economic development programs that he said are helping the economy to rebound.

“When you remember where we were and you look at where we are now there’s no doubt the state is better off,” he said.

An early question focused on hydrofracking, the controversial method of natural gas extraction that the state has withheld allowing for several years.

Astorino said he would make sure drilling is done safely and it would create thousands of jobs for upstate New York.

Cuomo said he's not a scientist and he would let them decide if fracking is safe. 

"It’s very complicated, it’s very controversial, people have very different opinions," he said. "Academic studies come out all different ways. Let the experts decide."

A long-awaited health impact study will be done by the end of the year, Cuomo said.

Cuomo's handling of studies about fracking is "a farce," Hawkins said, and he would ban it outright. He challenged the governor to issue his position before the election.

The back and forth attacks continued as the debate moved to the topic of women's equality and abortion and extreme views in politics.

The two third party candidates on stage, Hawkins and McDermott, meanwhile managed to stay mostly on topic.

McDermott criticized the major party candidates and urged voters to carefully consider their options. “Democrats and Republicans are the problem,” he said. “Just vote Libertarian, one time.” 

McDermott added that he opposes the Common Core, which he believes is “an abomination for our children.” 

Hawkins, a UPS worker from Syracuse, voiced opposition to hydraulic fracturing and said the state needs to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

Hawkins added during the debate that the state's public schools fail because they are the most segregated in the U.S. 

“This is a cannibalization of our public school system,” he said.

Common Core is an "unmitigated disaster," added Astorino. He wants New York to develop its own set of standards.

Cuomo tried to distance himself from the education standards, which are tied to federal aid, saying it was the Board of Regents that implemented the federal standards, not him.

One question from moderators seemed to be directly solely at Cuomo, who has long been rumored to have ambitions beyond Albany and has recently stepped up his public profile with foreign trips and a memoir. If elected, would the candidate serve a full four year term?

Barring a heart attack, Cuomo joked, yes, he would.

Other debates between the candidates were proposed - including one that would have been hosted by WNYC public radio and seemed likely to happen until Astorino pulled out - but the campaigns have not agreed to anymore.

The election is Nov. 4.