ALBANY - Senator Schumer, who clamored for as many debates as possible when he was the underdog challenger in 1998, is taking a different approach now that he's the heavily favored incumbent.
With less than a month to go before Election Day, Mr. Schumer has not committed to a single face-off with his Republican opponent, Assemblyman Howard Mills, or the Conservative candidate, Marilyn O'Grady.
A spokesman for the senator, Stu Loeser, said Mr. Schumer expects to participate in debates but is still "working out the schedule."
"The Senate is still in session," Mr. Loeser said yesterday. "It's been a long session and they continue to be in Washington. ... We're just trying to work it out."
A spokeswoman for Mr. Mills, Caroline Quartararo, said she does not accept this excuse.
"He's ducking the debates. He's been ducking them for weeks," Ms. Quartararo said of the Democrat. "The debates usually occur in the last couple of weeks in the month, and the Senate will almost certainly be out of session at the end of next week, if not this week."
An official of the League of Women Voters, who is trying to set up a debate October 19 at Cornell University, warned yesterday that time is running out. Organizers sent out invitations in August, and as of yesterday Mr. Schumer was the only candidate who had not accepted, said the league's executive director, Robert Marchiony.
"I don't know if we'd characterize it as a holdout, but we are waiting to hear from his campaign," Mr. Marchiony said. Public Broadcasting System stations and Time Warner Cable, which have tentatively agreed to carry the debate across the state, "are really pushing us to get an answer quick," he said.
In addition to the Cornell event, the Mills campaign is pressing for debates at television stations at New York City and Long Island.
The situation is almost a mirror image of what happened six years ago, when Mr. Schumer, then a member of the House of Representatives from Brooklyn, was challenging Senator D'Amato, a three-term Republican. At that point, Mr. Schumer was eager to confront his opponent on television and Mr. D'Amato was the one professing scheduling problems.
By early October 1998, the two campaigns had set up televised debates late that month at Schenectady and New York City, and Mr. Schumer was pushing for as many as eight more.
"While you have agreed to two, it is clear that more are needed," Mr. Schumer wrote to Mr. D'Amato in a letter he released to reporters. "Additional debates will give us the best opportunity to speak directly to voters."
When Mr. D'Amato replied that official duties were keeping him at Washington, the Schumer campaign scoffed.
"Al D'Amato doesn't have the guts ... to defend his 18-year record of voting against Medicare, education, and cops on the beat," a spokesman for Mr. Schumer's campaign, Howard Wolfson, said at the time. "If I were him, I'd be afraid to debate, too."
A Democratic political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, said it makes perfect sense for Mr. Schumer to avoid debates this year.
"Nobody knows who the opponents are," Mr. Sheinkopf said. "Why give them extra exposure? ... The poll numbers are so overwhelming that, should he choose not to debate, he would have gained or lost nothing politically."
A poll last month by Quinnipiac University found 61% of registered voters favoring Mr. Schumer, compared to 13% for Mr. Mills, a third-term legislator from Hamptonburgh in Orange County, and 9% for Dr. O'Grady, an ophthalmic surgeon from Garden City on Long Island. At this time in 1998, by contrast, Mr. Schumer was in a statistical dead heat with Mr. D'Amato.
In addition, Mr. Schumer has raised almost $25 million, compared to only $702,000 raised by Mr. Mills and $47,000 by Dr. O'Grady.
"Should he choose to debate, he will be giving exposure to candidates who have no possibility of beating him and who want to use Chuck to get exposure," Mr. Sheinkopf said. "Six years ago there were candidates who were well funded, fighting each other on even turf."
If debates are scheduled, it remains unclear whether they will be two-way or three-way. While Dr. O'Grady has argued that she should be included, given how close she is to Mr. Mills in the polls, the Mills campaign has pushed for head-to-head debates between the major parties' candidates.
"That would be our first choice," Ms. Quartararo said. "We think the voters of the state of New York deserve to see a one-on-one match-up. However, in view of what's going on right now with Schumer ducking, we just think that the public should be able to hear the issues, so we'd be willing to participate with her."
Also yesterday, the O'Grady campaign released a TV commercial that depicts Messrs. Mills and Schumer as a pair of men on top of a wedding cake. It criticizes both candidates for adopting similar positions in favor of gay civil unions and legalized abortion.
"I'm the only candidate in this race who supports President Bush on an amendment to protect traditional marriage and on defending the right to life," Dr. O'Grady says in the spot. "Mills and Schumer are hopelessly opposed to the president."