JONATHAN LEMIRE | AP
NEW YORK (AP) -- The surprising new front-runner in the mayor's race received the bulk of the attacks Wednesday in a free-wheeling and often testy debate, the clearest sign yet that the dynamic of the race has changed with less than three weeks to go until the Democratic primary.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who has a slight lead in recent polls, engaged in several spirited back-and-forths with his two closest competitors vying for the two spots in a seemingly inevitable run-off.
"The public advocate is good at telling people what to do but not good at getting things done," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said.
"Would the real Bill de Blasio please stand up?" ex-comptroller Bill Thompson asked.
Quinn and Thompson forged an unlikely alliance, as Quinn took the debate moderator's offer to ask another candidate a question and gave her turn to Thompson. He then demanded that de Blasio take down an ad that portrays the public advocate as the only candidate who has vowed to end the era of the police department's stop-and-frisk tactic.
De Blasio refused. He then joked that he thought "tag teams were only allowed in professional wrestling."
De Blasio became the front-runner for the first time just a week ago. Quinn led in the polls most of the year until ex-congressman Anthony Weiner took a turn at the top before his support collapsed after his latest sexting scandal.
The police stop-and-frisk policy, and other complaints that police unfairly target minorities, repeatedly emerged as a flashpoint in the 90-minute televised debate, which featured the seven Democratic candidates frequently talking over each other. The debate also featured Weiner, Comptroller John Liu and two lesser-known candidates, ex-councilman Sal Albanese and the Rev. Erick Salgado.
The debate came at the end of a tumultuous day that saw Quinn condemn what she believed was an attack from de Blasio's wife on her ability to solve issues related to women and children.
De Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, was quoted in The New York Times saying the speaker, who's vying to be the first female and first openly gay mayor, was "not the kind of person" to whom she'd feel comfortable talking about issues affecting women and children.
The de Blasio camp insisted McCray was misquoted. The Times later corrected its story. But Quinn said she believed the "sentiment was the same" in a longer quote.
"It made me sad," Quinn said at the debate.
De Blasio insisted in the debate that his wife only meant she disagreed with Quinn's policies and intended no personal insult.
Recent polls suggest it's a three-person race for two run-off spots. In a Quinnipiac poll released last week, de Blasio had slight leads on Quinn and Thompson, but all three were within the margin of error.
If no Democratic candidate reaches 40 percent of the vote on the Sept. 10 primary, the top two advance to a run-off three weeks later. The winner of that advances to the November general election. Three major Republican candidates and an independent also are running.
There were a few lighthearted moments during Wednesday's debate. During a lightning round, candidates were asked if they have ever sent a text message while driving.
Weiner, who has admitted exchanging illicit electronic correspondence with women, drew roars of laughter when he quickly and firmly said, "No."