Governor hopefuls Zephyr Teachout, a Democrat, and Rob Astorino, a Republican, took to the airwaves on the Brian Lehrer Show Thursday on WNYC for their first head-to-head debate, two days after the incumbent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, infamously declared that debates can be a “disservice to democracy,” and essentially refused to give his Democratic primary opponent, Teachout, an opportunity to challenge him in public.

So, they went ahead without Cuomo, attacking him from the left and the right, repeatedly railing against him for his allegedly failed policies and, in the case of Teachout, questioning his Democratic Party principles.

Even moderator Brian Lehrer took a not-so-veiled jab at the absent governor after introducing Teachout, a Fordham Law professor, and Astornio, the two-term Westchester County Executive.

“My job as host is to make sure that important issues get discussed this election season, so if the governor is lying low and refusing to debate in order to minimize public discussion as a political strategy, and if having Teachout and Astorino in a room together creates a little buzz around public discussion, I’m all for it,” he said.

Astorino pulled no punches in his assessment of Cuomo, saying, “This governor has done nothing to turn the state around. In fact, on a good day, he’s just managing the decline. Overall, though, he’s accelerating our demise.”

The Republican gubernatorial candidate laid out his vision of New York as a lower taxed, less regulated business climate, which uses hydrofracking as a means to create jobs and boost the economy.

Teachout, a self-described “F.D.R. Democrat,” came out swinging, vehemently disagreeing with Astorino’s Republican views and likening him to Cuomo.

“You said that Andrew Cuomo wasn’t here but in the last answer I felt like Andrew Cuomo was here,” she exclaimed. “This is an area where Andrew Cuomo’s vision of New York is very similar to Rob Astorino’s. It’s a real traditional, conservative, trickle-down Reagan approach to economic development.”

Still, the debate was rather cordial, as the two candidates saved their salvos for Cuomo.

Teachout, who faces Cuomo in the Democratic primary on Sept. 9, discussed her vision of New York as a leader in renewable energy infrastructure and as a high-tech center. She discussed the need to raise in the minimum wage and declared her unwavering opposition to fracking.

Astorino and Teachout are polar opposites when it comes to most issues, specifically minimum wage and fracking. Astornio said a substantial increase of the minimum wage in upstate counties still reeling from the economic downturn would hurt businesses; Teachout advocated for $15 per hour minimum wage.

“We need to ban fracking,” Teachout repeated several times. Astorino said he supports “natural gas exploration” in the state to boost job growth. Fracking consists of injecting a corrosive cocktail of chemicals, water and sand into the ground in order to release natural gas from shale rock buried hundreds of feet below the surface.

Astorino believes fracking can be safe, and if done properly, it would not negatively effect the environment. Teachout, who recently visited a fracking site in Pennsylvania, vehemently disagreed, saying the technique would pollute the ground water.

“I agree with the National Academy of Sciences on this,” Astorino said. “I agree with President Obama on this. Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), said there is not one documented case of water being corrupted by this. Sens. [Chuck] Schumer and [Kirsten] Gillbrand agree.

“Thirty-one states are doing this very safely,” he continued. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh yeah, come on in. Do whatever you want and then leave.’ Let’s protect the water supplies around the Catskills and New York City’s drinking water. I have no problem [with that]—let’s set up a buffer zone around the Finger Lakes.”

The scandal involving the Moreland Commission was a hot topic, with both candidates agreeing that disbanding the commission in charge of investigating corruption in Albany when its members started coming too close to Cuomo’s campaign contributors was self-serving at best, corrupt itself at worst.

Astorino repeatedly accused Cuomo of overseeing the “highest tax state in America,” and he proposed tax cuts. Teachout gave examples of the state’s crumbling infrastructure despite all of the tax dollars collected, as well as a lack of social services, and poor performing schools. “You can feel that we have a tax-giveaway governor here,” she said.

Both Astorino and Teachout voiced their opposition to the state’s education reform aligned with the federal Common Core Learning Standards. Astorino focused on his time spent at the kitchen table with his young children; Teachout spoke of her work in the classroom. Both believe that investment in public education is key.

Although they had fundamental disagreements that fell along traditional party lines, Astorino and Teachout were united in their singular belief that Andrew Cuomo has to leave the Governor’s Office. But they couldn’t see eye to eye on who should replace him.

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