By all rights, tonight's gubernatorial debate in New York should've been a daffy three-ring circus—even by the abysmal standards of the 2010 midterms. Put aside, for a moment, Republican candidate Carl Paladino's well-known penchant for emailing bestiality porn to his friends and uttering physical threats to reporters. There were a total of seven candidates up on stage, a menagerie that included Kristin Davis, the former madam at the center of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution ring who offered political analysis like: "The key difference between the [Metropolitan Transit Authority] and my former escort agency is that I only had one set of books and offered on-time and reliable service." (Hooting and hollering ensued.) Oh right, and there was Jimmy McMillan of the Rent Is 2 Damn High Party, sporting black gloves, a byzantine beard, the catchiest of catchphrases ("Rent is. Too. Damn. High!") and a plan to secede from the Union. Surely this was going to be a disaster—right?

And yet it actually wasn't a disaster. Against all odds, this may have been the most informative, high-minded political debate of the cycle. Because there were so many candidates, each one had only a short time to speak, so everyone had to stay sharp and on message. And for the most part, they couldn't veer off into personal attacks like the ones that made yesterday's Senate debate in Kentucky so brutal. The candidates all had to stay focused on gritty policy issues, lest they seem unserious compared to their peers. So they gabbed a lot about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or New York's sky-high property taxes, or the MTA's budget hole. All of these issues got more in-depth treatment then you'd see elsewhere.

As it turns out, having fringe candidates in a debate can actually help keep the mainstream politicians honest. For instance, when the two front-runners—Paladino and Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo—both started muttering platitudes about rooting out corruption in the MTA by bringing it under control of the governor's office, the Libertarian candidate, Warren Redlich, pointed out that State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wasn't ever going to let that happen. When the debate veered into a discussion about capping the state's sky-high property taxes, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins wasn't afraid to point out that Proposition 13 has straitjacketed California's budget.

The fringe candidates also injected their fair share of novel ideas into the debate. Hawkins pointed out that congestion pricing on traffic into New York City could create a dedicated funding stream for mass transit (a far sounder idea than "cutting waste and fraud") and that single-payer health care was one option for bringing the state's rising medical costs under control. The Anti-Prohibition Party's Kristin Davis argued that legalizing marijuana could bring the state plenty of new revenue. Charles Barron of the Freedom Party noted that minorities were drastically underrepresented in state procurement contracts. If this had just been a debate between the Democratic and Republic front-runners, odds are the spectrum of topics would've been much more cramped.

On the salient question of who won, it was probably Cuomo. He had no trouble looking like a serious candidate next to a guy who wanted to, literally, raze the mountains in upstate New York to make room for new industrial parks (that would be Rent Is 2 Damn High's Jimmy McMillan). Most of Cuomo's well-polished answers were about what you'd expect from a career politician: On the environment, for instance, he started off with a touchy-feely Native American quote about how we're not inheriting the Earth from our ancestors but borrowing it from our kids, then segued into some obligatory pablum about renewable energy and green jobs, and topped it off with a concrete point about the need for transmission lines. (Fortunately, the other fringe candidates where there to observe that he had stayed curiously silent on the thorny issue of whether or not to hydrofrack for natural gas, and that his state climate proposals offered no hard dates or numbers.)

Paladino, for his part, was probably hurt by the zoo-like atmosphere—ironic, since he's the one who wanted all the candidates included. True, everyone else was too preoccupied to harp on his porn escapades, his hard-right positions on social issues, or his pledge to stop the Park51 project at all costs. (One memorable exception came when Kristin Davis observed that if New York kept raising taxes, "businesses will leave faster than Paladino at a gay bar.") But Paladino also had a hard time standing out—he was visibly reading off his notes for most of the night, hunched over and muttering quietly. At one point he confused Medicare and Medicaid and blundered his way through a correction. The only time he was truly in the spotlight was at the end, when the candidates were all asked if they supported gay marriage—everyone else answered strongly yes (including Cuomo, who garnered thick cheers), while Paladino gave a creepy, rambling answer, licking his lips all the while. In a cast of misfits, he was easily the most forgettable candidate—and least likable. The audience seemed to prefer the Rent Is 2 Damn High guy shouting, "LISTEN! Do you hear that sound? That's the sound of a child's stomach grumbling." He may have been nuts, but at least he had a heart.

(Flickr photo credit: aboutmattlaw)