The two Republicans vying to challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton this fall tore into each other Wednesday in a debate dominated by angry accusations of personal and professional misconduct and abject dishonesty.
From the early minutes of the hourlong forum sponsored by all news cable channel NY1, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer found himself repeatedly on the defensive about his unconventional private life and its impact on his tenure as mayor from 1996 to 2004.
While married to another woman, Spencer fathered two children with his then-chief of staff and substantially raised her salary. He eventually divorced his first wife and married his chief of staff.
So with an opening question from debate moderator Dominic Carter about whether a candidate's personal life should be off-limits, the responses got very personal, very fast.
Kathleen Troia "KT" McFarland, a former Ronald Reagan-era Pentagon official, immediately accused Spencer of engaging in adultery and nepotism and said it spoke to his lack of credibility to serve in office.
"That's something that, in 1998, the Republican Party impeached President Clinton for exactly the same behavior," McFarland said to gasps from the audience. "If you'd been in the military, you would have been court-martialed. If you worked in the federal government, you would have been subject to indictment."
Spencer angrily shot back, saying McFarland had unfairly insulted his children and lied about his record.
"You have no way of knowing my private life," he said. "I say to you, Mrs. McFarland, shame on you. Shame on you as a mother of children and a woman yourself for talking about my wife and my family that way."
So much time was spent discussing Spencer's private life that Carter finally turned the tables, asking McFarland whether disclosures about her own messy past _ she accused her father in 1992 of sexually abusing her as a child _ were relevant to her fitness to serve.
"That was 50 years ago. I've addressed it. I have nothing further to add," McFarland said.
The candidates did respond to questions from a panel of journalists about a range of issues, including energy independence, the conduct of the war in Iraq and ways they would try to improve the lagging upstate economy. They also took turns criticizing Hillary Clinton, calling her a liberal who placed presidential ambitions ahead of the concerns of New Yorkers.
They disagreed on several issues, most notably abortion rights. Spencer reiterated his opposition to legal abortion in nearly all circumstances, while McFarland said she supported abortion rights and would not vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
But, inevitably, the discussion would shift back to personal matters and accusations.
Spencer labeled McFarland, who held midlevel jobs in three Republican administrations before quitting to raise a family in 1985, a "Washington bureaucrat" who had sneered at his middle-class roots and his experience in local government. McFarland accused Spencer of raising taxes and spending in Yonkers and employing numerous relatives on the city payroll.
"John, you are like the Clintons," she said. "You taxed and spent like Hillary and behaved like Bill."
When asked to pose questions to each other, McFarland cited instances when Spencer had threatened to kill Gov. George Pataki and had used ethnic slurs against Italians and Chinese.
"Is this how you plan to conduct yourself?" McFarland asked.
Spencer said he'd apologized for using crude language and for making jokes that fell flat.
"I'm human," he said.
Spencer, who won the support of the state Republican Party and Conservative Party earlier this year, asked McFarland why she was persisting with her campaign and "helping" Clinton by doing so. McFarland said she wanted to give Republican voters a choice.
If Spencer and McFarland were looking to make a big impression on vast numbers of voters, the debate might not have been the answer. An earlier NY1 debate featuring state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who are much better known and are competing for the Democratic nomination for governor, drew a viewership of about 23,100 homes to the cable channel.
Thus far, Wednesday's debate was the only one to which both Republicans had agreed. But McFarland called for more debates leading up to the Sept. 12 primary.
A spokesman for the Clinton campaign declined comment. But in a statement, Blake Zeff, of the state Democratic Party, likened the debate to a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon.
"We don't envy GOP primary voters who will have to choose between a candidate who can't keep her promise to stay positive and one who can't control his temper or defend his record," Zeff said.