In debate, de Blasio cements front-runner status

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

With less than a week to go before polls open on primary day, the New York City mayoral race has a clear front-runner to succeed Michael Bloomberg in City Hall, and it's not someone that many people outside the nation's largest city have heard of.

As the other four major candidates for the Democratic nomination scrambled for votes in the outer boroughs on Tuesday, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio held no public events before sharing the stage with them in the final debate before the Sept. 10 primary.

With a comfortable buffer over his competition and an increasingly realistic shot at avoiding a runoff election by winning at least 40 percent of the vote next Tuesday, de Blasio now appears to be trying to run out the clock.

Standing at the center of the debate stage and flanked on each side by a pair of fellow candidates, the 6-foot-5-inch de Blasio towered over the other candidates physically and largely played it safe, at one point echoing his oft-repeated campaign trail refrain.

"We live in a tale of two cities," de Blasio said. "It's literally true. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer."

In making the leap over the last few weeks from fourth place to first, de Blasio has carved out a niche as the most ardent progressive in the race, seeking to rebut the once widely popular Bloomberg at every turn.

De Blasio made his case that the nation's largest city has become a haven for the ultra-rich at the expense of middle- and lower-class residents, promising to take away subsidies granted to big companies and using the proceeds to fund education initiatives.

"We need a new set of city policies to give people a chance to get back to the middle class again," he said. "What they sense in Mayor Bloomberg is not just a billionaire, but a mayor who doesn't understand the middle-class experience, particularly in the outer boroughs."

In a Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday, de Blasio led the Democratic field with 43 percent support, becoming the first candidate in the race to clock in above 40 percent -- the threshold needed to avoid a runoff between the top two finishers that would take place on Oct. 1.

In the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, de Blasio leads the current second-place contender, New York City comptroller Bill Thompson, by 12 points.

Thompson sought to challenge the front-runner at times, calling the public advocate's comments on the regulation of landlords "another example of Bill de Blasio saying one thing and doing something differently when it's convenient to him."

But Thompson found himself on the defensive under aggressive questioning from one of the debate moderators about his stance regarding "stop and frisk" -- a controversial police procedure that has sparked heated debates about racial profiling and privacy rights.

The only African-American among the leading Democratic contenders, Thompson shot back that he had been "very consistent" on the issue.

"I've said for years that stop-and-frisk has been used and misused by the Bloomberg administration," Thompson said.

The three other contenders onstage attempted at several junctures to make their mark but were often rebuffed by the moderators, who enforced strict 15-second time limits on the candidates' answers to complex policy questions.

The televised portion of the debate, which continued for an additional half-hour online, ended with a so-called "lightning round," in which the candidates were asked to provide one-word answers to questions ranging from the last time they rode the subway to how frequently they have a housekeeper clean their apartments.

The debate's format garnered several rebuffs from the candidates, who were repeatedly chastised by the moderators for extending their allotted time and not giving direct answers.

"You do the question, let me do the answer," former New York congressman Anthony Weiner said after being interrupted on one occasion.

In one of the most pointed moments of the evening, the scandal-tarnished Weiner, who has slipped into a distant fourth place in the polls after leading in early surveys, was asked how he could govern the city effectively with so few people now taking him seriously.

"I'll be taken seriously if I win this election," Weiner said, citing his support for a single-payer health care system for the city. "Sometimes, even if you're going to lose the fight, it's worth making."

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is seeking to become the first female and first openly gay mayor of New York, accused de Blasio of "talking out of both sides of his mouth" but faced fire from the other candidates for her shifting position on term limits -- an issue that has dogged her in recent weeks.

Quinn has slipped to third place in recent polls, and her main challenge appears to be in besting Thompson to earn the second slot in a potential runoff against de Blasio.

The fifth candidate onstage, New York City comptroller John Liu, has been mired in single digits, according to recent polls.

Liu, who has faced a federal investigation into his campaign finances, said that he has been the object of a "witch hunt" designed to bring him down.

"A federal investigation has been going on for years -- years -- into my campaign," Liu said, noting that he has yet to be charged with a crime in all that time.

After 20 years of Republican mayoral control of the city, whichever Democrat emerges from the primary contest is likely to be a heavy favorite in November's general election against his or her Republican opponent.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.