Five-way debate just might ignite the race for mayor

Tomorrow, the five major Democratic candidates for mayor of Philadelphia are to stand at podiums in the same CBS3 studio for the campaign's first televised debate, an event with the potential to reshape the contest.

Or not, depending on how it goes.

So far the race has remained in a state of rough equilibrium, with the candidates exchanging polite remarks at issue-specific forums and mostly refraining from combat. Last week's Keystone Poll found millionaire Tom Knox leading - on the strength of about $4.9 million worth of TV advertising - with U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady right behind, followed closely by former City Councilman Michael Nutter and State Rep. Dwight Evans.

Twenty percent of Democratic voters were undecided, the poll found.

"You're going to see that number shrink because they're all up on TV [advertising] now," said a Philadelphia political consultant, Eleanor Dezzi. "People are going to start making their decisions now." The debate offers candidates an "opportunity to define themselves," Dezzi said.

The hour-long debate is to be taped tomorrow morning, to be shown on TV at 7 p.m. on CBS3. It is to be rebroadcast Sunday at 8 a.m. on the same station, and then at noon on Channel 3's corporate sister, the CW Philly 57.

CBS3 anchor Larry Mendte will be the sole questioner in the debate, which is slated to focus on crime, schools, the city budget and taxes.

The ground rules: Each candidate gets a minute to answer a question; then each of his opponents has the option of a 30-second rebuttal. Each candidate also gets to make a one-minute closing statement. A drawing will determine the order of questioning.

"This might be the first chance for most of the people who will tune in to take stock of the candidates," said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University who analyzes city politics. "After Easter, people are just beginning to bestir themselves to pay attention, even though the campaign has been going on a long time."

Miller said that the most lasting impact could come later from "sound bites" - if candidates commit gaffes that foes think they can exploit.

Dezzi and other strategists said that because the format doesn't allow the candidates to fire questions at each other, the event may not rock the boat.

"Do you think the average Philadelphian is going to be watching the debate?" said consultant Howard Cain. "Most of the people who will watch it probably have their minds made up. . . . They'll sort of see it through that prism."

Media coverage of the debate will likely have more impact, Cain said, especially if somebody makes a goof.

"If the headline is 'Brady flops in TV opener,' that could be the death knell," Cain said. "If it's 'Knox says something really stupid,' that could be the death knell. If the headline is 'Debate is boring,' then everything basically stays the way it is."

Brady said he wasn't doing anything special to prepare for the debate. "I am what I am, I say what I say, and I feel what I feel," he said last night during a break in a forum on school issues. "Just talk from the heart."

Unlike numerous issue-specific forums in recent weeks, "debates have rebuttals, so it may get a little interesting," said Melanie Johnson, Nutter's spokeswoman. "I hope everyone will remain gentlemen."

Solomon Jones, a spokesman for Fattah, said debate tricks would matter less than communicating his candidate's "passion for uplifting the people of Philadelphia."

Knox, who has the least campaign experience of the candidates, has this week practiced boiling down his positions to fit the one-minute format, said spokesman Brad Katz. "We want to make sure he's comfortable with the limits," Katz said.

Evans is looking forward to the debate as a chance to "talk directly to voters who are tuned in and interested," said his spokesman, Tim Spreitzer.


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Andrew Maykuth contributed to this article.