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Mayoral foes vie for attention tonight

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been campaigning hard, even though one analyst says he is apt to have smooth sailing. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been campaigning hard, even though one analyst says he is apt to have smooth sailing. (George Rizer/Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 2, 2009

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The challengers to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino in this year’s mayor’s race, hoping to avoid being overshadowed by the high-profile fight for Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat, will try to seize the spotlight and knock Menino off course when they meet tonight in the first debate of the mayoral campaign.

The debate, to be broadcast live at 7 p.m. on WBZ-TV, begins the final sprint to the Sept. 22 preliminary election, which will narrow the field to two. The stakes are high for Menino, who has largely avoided face-to-face confrontations, and for his opponents, who are suddenly clamoring for visibility following Kennedy’s death and the race for the first open US Senate seat in 25 years.

“Clearly, it sucked some of the energy out of the room, because I think everybody was geared up,’’ said Jim Spencer, the campaign strategist for City Councilor Sam Yoon. “It really is a benefit to the incumbent mayor.’’

Not that Menino is taking any chances. On Monday night, he made a rare appearance at a forum alongside his opponents, arriving early and listening intently to their stump speeches and lines of attack at an event sponsored by DotOUT, a Dorchester gay rights organization.

The forum, which served as a warm-up of sorts for tonight’s debate, was a showcase of contrasting styles, and produced several tense moments.

At one point, Menino pointedly challenged a supporter of City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, who spoke to the gathering about the politics of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, whose organizers refuse to allow gay groups to register and march. The Flaherty supporter, David J. Breen, told the crowd that the mayor gets an unfair pass from the gay and lesbian community because, while he shuns the parade, he attends house parties and, according to Breen, also shakes hands along the route.

“From the back of the room, I heard someone say, ‘That’s a lie. That’s a lie,’ and I was stunned to see my former boss calling me a liar,’’ said Breen, a law professor at Boston University who was formerly a lawyer for the City of Boston. “As you can imagine, it’s a little intimidating to see the mayor of Boston call you a liar.’’

When Breen confronted the mayor about his reply, Menino shot back, “That’s what you are, pal,’ ’’ according to Breen.

The mayor responded strongly because he did not appreciate the suggestion that his attendance at house parties on the parade route was tantamount to marching in the parade, which he has long boycotted because of his support for gay rights, said Nick Martin, a Menino campaign spokesman.

“He felt like David was attacking his character and, justifiably, he defended himself and made it known that it was a lie that they were trying to spread,’’ Martin said, disputing Breen’s assertion that Menino works the sidelines of the parade.

It was not the only brittle exchange of the night.

Yoon, who has often pointed to his support of same-sex marriage, was sharply questioned about his decision to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Yoon initially said that, as a councilor at large, he must represent the entire city. But one voter, clearly unsatisfied with the answer, asked Yoon whether he would march in the parade if it banned African-Americans or Jews.

“I see your point and I get your point - that exclusion based on who I am and my identity is something that is incredibly hurtful,’’ Yoon told the crowd of about 50 people at the Ledge restaurant in Dorchester. “And I’m sorry - I will say this - I’m really sorry about the way this has affected folks in the LGBT community. I apologize for that. But again, I think there is more to be gained from my part, as a representative of the city, to march in these parades.’’

None of the candidates, including South End businessman Kevin McCrea, mustered enough support from members of DotOUT to win the group’s endorsement, which the mayor’s challengers hailed as a minor victory.

Menino’s opponents knew that the mayor would be difficult to challenge, but now they are facing an obstacle they had not planned on. The Jan. 19 special election to fill Kennedy’s Senate seat could drain attention - and campaign cash - from Menino’s challengers at a time when they need all the name recognition and campaign contributions they can get, political observers said.

“The relatively new candidates who don’t have as much visibility will have more of a problem,’’ said Joseph P. McEttrick, a professor of law at Suffolk University and longtime observer of local politics. “It’s always difficult for them to punch through the background to get their message out. So it’s a definite factor.’’

The mayoral candidates said they are undaunted.

“The mayor is the chief executive of Boston, a $2.4 billion corporation,’’ so voter interest remains high, Menino said.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised how interested people are,’’ McCrea said. “They’re looking forward to these debates.’’

Flaherty said: “It’s just making me work harder.’’

But time for the candidates is running out.

“It’s clear that unless there is some momentous shift in the dynamic of the race, it’s going to be smooth sailing for the mayor,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “And these debates therefore provide an opportunity - not a guarantee, but an opportunity - for one of those shifts to begin to take place.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.