Before their second debate tonight, both New York City mayoral candidates are trying to adjust their tone—in their ads, in handling the press and in talking about a riot in the city from twenty years ago.

Republican Joe Lhota has been facing criticism from the right that he wimped out in the first debate last Tuesday. Nicole Gelinas complained in the New York Post that “on critical topics, Lhota punted.”

On policing, the moderator lobbed him a softball: “Is New York City going to be less safe with [Bill de Blasio]?”

Lhota should’ve said yes. Instead, he paused before settling on: “It might be less safe with him.”

Lhota’s been trying to make up for such errors ever since. “I will have a different tone” in tonight’s debate, he promised yesterday.

And he overcompensated for any perceived mildness with a highly inaccurate, much disputed ad insisting that Democrat Bill de Blasio will hurl the city back to the bloody, crime-ridden days of the ’70s and ’80s.

“Keep the punches coming, Mr. Lhota,” a Post editorial coached him. But Lhota’s next punch is a long web ad, released yesterday, that’s set to such annoying music, it’s hard to watch.  

And in an interview with Juan Manual Benitez of the Spanish-language NY1 Noticias, Lhota also came out sounding annoyed. From The Politicker:

Mr. Lhota grew infuriated when Mr. Benitez cited anonymous former subordinates who claimed they would never work for Mr. Lhota again. (In his defense, when Politicker profiled Mr. Lhota earlier this year, his former employees had nothing but praise for him.)

“You are just reading a script from Bill de Blasio,” he declared while pointing his finger at Mr. Benitez. “You’re nothing but a tool of Bill de Blasio if you believe that…”

But Lhota has been throwing around his own unsubstantiated claims, saying that when de Blasio was an aide in Mayor Dinkins’s administration he didn’t relay information that more police were urgently needed to control the racially charged Crown Heights riot.

“It’s so emblematic of Bill de Blasio’s complete and total experience to be the mayor,” Lhota said yesterday. “He doesn’t understand what you need to do…as a mayor. He worked as a mayoral staffer, he didn’t provide information up to his boss. That’s just purely [mis]understanding the chain of command.”

De Blasio tried to explain: “I was in City Hall working on the staff. I did receive calls from concerned community leaders around the city and that’s all.… I was not on the site. I came away with very strong views, but I did not participate directly.” He added, “There should have been a very, very strong show of force from the very beginning.”

Like that ’70s ad, the twenty-year-old riot seems to be putting de Blasio on the defensive. Yesterday when a Daily News reporter asked him about it, he seemed more testy than usual. The subject is sure to come up tonight.

But de Blasio is still ahead by about forty to fifty points, and in his latest ad, he’s nothing but the good-neighbor candidate.

Leslie Savan writes about one of Lhota’s incredibly misleading political ads.