Housing was just one of many themes last night in the governor's debate in New York State. It featured seven candidates from all across the political spectrum, as they say. And as NPR's Robert Smith reports, some seem to be operating entirely on their own spectrum.

ROBERT SMITH: It sounds like the setup for a bad MTV reality show: seven candidates trapped on one stage. There's Andrew Cuomo, the son of the former governor.

Mr. ANDREW CUOMO (Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): And I know this state like nobody else on this stage.

SMITH: Sitting alongside a self-described mad-as-hell Tea Partier, Carl Paladino.

Mr. CARL PALADINO (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): That's why they call me crazy.

SMITH: Oh, it's gets crazier. Add in a former madam who claims she procured prostitutes for disgraced Governor Eliot Spitzer, a former member of the Black Panthers, a libertarian, a guy from the Green Party, and Jimmy McMillan.

Mr. JIMMY MCMILLAN (Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): Allow me to introduce myself. I represent the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

SMITH: Yes, it's really on the ballot, the Rent is Too Damn High Party.

Needless to say, people were expecting the one and only New York gubernatorial debate to be something of a circus. But with seven candidates, it ended up more of a side show, with each candidate performing their own unique act. New York City Councilmember Charles Barron, the former Black Panther, went after the organizers of the debate.

Mr. CHARLES BARRON (Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): There should have been a Latino person, an indigenous person and an Asian person asking questions too, because this is a diversified state.

SMITH: Former madam Kristin Davis spent the night looking for ways to slip in her prostitution zingers.

Ms. KRISTIN DAVIS (Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): The career politicians in Albany are the biggest whores in this state. I might be the only person sitting on this stage with the right experience to deal with them.

SMITH: And then there's that rent candidate, Jimmy McMillan. He wore these black gloves and has a wild swooping mustache. And by the end of the debate, audience members were chanting along with him.

Mr. MCMILLAN: Some would say I'm a one-issue candidate, but it all boils down to one thing: rent - it's too damn high.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you, Mr. McMillan.

SMITH: It was bizarre, but the debate never got heated and it never got personal. And even the usually serious Democratic frontrunner, Andrew Cuomo, started to giggle.

Mr. CUOMO: First, I'm with Jimmy, the rent is too damn high.

SMITH: In some ways, having so many candidates made for a refreshing change from the usual partisan dividing lines. Democrat Cuomo was under attack for most of the debate, but not from the right - from candidates far more liberal, like Charles Barron.

Mr. BARRON: I'm telling you, this guy gets in, you're going to be laid off, your pension is gone, your health care is gone. They go with you, Charles, there are no jobs.

SMITH: And the Republican, Carl Paladino, got slammed too, but not by the Democrat, by another conservative: the libertarian candidate, Warren Redlich.

Mr. WARREN REDLICH (Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): Mr. Paladino has demonstrated over the last few weeks that he lacks the temperament and the judgment to be governor.

SMITH: You see, Carl Paladino is famous for his outbursts of anger. He recently threatened a reporter. But on this night, surrounded by the swirl of nuttiness, Paladino looked like just another businessman from Buffalo, even wandered off to the bathroom partway through the debate. He returned though with some of his old spark.

Mr. PALADINO: I'm going to tell you my plan. You tell me if it sounds crazy. I'm going to lower income taxes by 10 percent.

SMITH: The debate ended before Paladino could explain his whole plan. With seven candidates, nobody got much time. And the audience members didn't seem to get much new understanding.

Mr. MIKE COHEN: Tell you what, I don't know who won the debate but we all lost the debate.

SMITH: Mike Cohen from Long Island says New York is in crisis, the leaders are out to lunch, and this is what we get?

Mr. COHEN: It was just so - it was nonsense. I mean, it's funny on the one hand but it's frightening in terms of our democracy.

SMITH: All those candidates, Cohen says, and no one answers the question.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: But we do have this song from the candidate of the Rent is Too Damn High Party.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MCMILLAN: (Singing) Rent too damn high is my thing. Jimmy McMillan is my name. Vote for the Rent Too Damn High Party and Jimmy McMillan November 2. Rent too damn high is my thing. Jimmy McMillan is my name. Vote for Jimmy McMillan and the Rent Too Damn High Party November 2.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is NPR News.

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