In writing about last night’s raucous NYC mayoral debate between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota, Michael Powell of the New York Times nailed de Blasio as a Nation sort of guy, but suggested that he might not be so forever.

“The man likely to be the next mayor, Mr. de Blasio now sometimes seems less suggestive of a Nation magazine star than a savvy, even cool-eyed pol. (It’s worth noting that he barred reporters from his fund-raiser and declined to make public a list of the guests),” writes Powell. He’s been doing some of the best, most contextual coverage of the race, and he doesn’t pose either candidate’s shortcomings in fatalistic terms, but rather as something to be aware of.

“Being mayor is an indisputably complicated business, and his feints in directions other than to the liberal North Star are intriguing to watch.”

It wasn’t always easy to see those feints in the bitter second debate last night. They came between arguments over who was playing the race card and whose former boss was the more divisive (de Blasio called Lhota “the right-hand man of Rudy Giuliani when he was going out of his way to divide this city,” while Lhota characterized the Mayor Dinkins era as “the last time we had a race riot in the city of New York”).

But between the fireworks, there were indeed de Blasio’s more subtle movements—call them fudges, inconsistencies or measured calculations—that made the debate feel at times like a preview of possible disappointments to come for the left. Not that a Mayor de Blasio would disappoint on the scale of Obama—de Blasio has an authentic and longstanding commitment to progressive causes—but he is a politician.  

As to whether the city should allow a stadium to be built in one of Queens’s densest parks, for instance, Powell pointed out the two candidates’ unexpected answers. De Blasio, he writes, “cleared his throat with some populist rumbling about city tax giveaways. Then he allowed that, well, perhaps, maybe, a pro soccer stadium might raise the money needed to give that dowdy dowager of a park a face-lift.” Lhota gave a flat no, saying, “We don’t have enough park space in this city as it is.”

Neither man supported Mayor Bloomberg’s “green taxi” initiative, which would bring more environmentally friendly taxis to the underserved outer boroughs. Powell writes that de Blasio “suggested that taxi service was fine out there, a claim that disintegrated like a meteor slamming into the troposphere. As I listened to him, I could not help recalling—banish the mean thought!—that Mr. de Blasio raised $250,000 from the taxi industry.” (Read more on that from Wayne Barrett.)

Others pointed out that de Blasio seems to have suddenly switched positions on the popular pedestrian plazas, where tables and chairs have replaced honking cars in congested areas like Times Square.

“I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue,” said de Blasio, citing his frustration as a motorist, adding “the jury’s still out” on its impact on traffic and surrounding businesses. But Dana Rubinstein noted in Capital New York that de Blasio had previously “’singled out Times Square and Herald Square,’ describing them ‘as wildly successful.’

“De Blasio’s shifting rhetoric provoked immediate anger among pedestrian advocates.

“‘Ped Plazas are still more popular than any politician,’ tweeted Glenn McAnanama, a boardmember of StreetsPac, the street-safety group that endorsed de Blasio for mayor.”

(Lhota’s crazy suggestion was that the hundreds of chairs and tables be put out there “on a part-time basis, open it up during periods of time when there’s a lot of traffic during rush hour and then put it back.” Rush hour, it should be noted, is twice a day.)

There wasn’t much press follow-up, however, on one of the more contentious issues: developer Bruce Ratner’s enormous Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, which de Blasio supports, even though the long-promised affordable housing there is far from being built.

“You know why?” Lhota asked in the debate. “Bill de Blasio keeps taking contributions from Bruce Ratner. Bruce Ratner actually paid for his fiftieth birthday party.” De Blasio replied, “I am proud of the fact that that development, when it is done, will yield thousands of units of affordable housing for the people of Brooklyn and I’ll make sure it happens.” But he didn’t answer the part about the donation.

A headline in Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report blog, characterized the exchange as “wobbly charges met with evasive rhetoric, but no follow-up.” Oder added, “de Blasio has surely avoided every opportunity to criticize the developer, but he sure isn’t the main culprit. Ratner did help pay for that 2011 birthday party/fundraiser, but he was one of many hosts.”

Even de Blasio ally Letitia James, a city councilwoman running for de Blasio’s current job as public advocate, is disappointed on this score. “Not one [elected official] has made any comment with regard to the fact that New Yorkers and taxpayers were basically duped. And that includes the current public advocate, Bill de Blasio, and others.”

It’s premature to be disappointed in de Blasio—I’d be disappointed if he didn’t adjust and evolve enough to lead the whole city, not just the people of Nation-nation. But I do detect in him a need to please too many sides; and, assuming he’s the next mayor, we should watch closely how he deals with developers and financiers. And I’m certainly not disappointed in his overall political instincts—on income inequality, housing, education and policing—they're the best this city has seen in a long time.

Leslie Savan analyzes round one of the New York City mayoral debates.