If Wednesday night's D.C. for Democracy candidates forum had been televised, viewers would have seen Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) looking annoyed, distracted and uneasy.
The mayor had a vexed look on his face during much of the forum as he fumbled with his BlackBerry. At one point, he picked up the BlackBerry and handed it to an aide so she could take an incoming call for him.
But viewers also would have heard a mayor who is starting to sharpen his message about why he thinks he's a better candidate than his chief rival in the September Democratic primary, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.
Appearing alongside Gray and Leo Alexander, also a candidate for the Democratic nomination, Fenty defended his record and tried to raise doubts about his opponents' leadership ability.
In response to a question from the moderator, Gray and Alexander criticized the Fenty administration's record on affordable housing.
Fenty hit back.
"As you can tell the gentleman on my left and the gentleman on my right are really big critics," Fenty said, referring to Gray and Alexander. "If we were electing a chief critic for the District of Columbia, I would probably recommend either of them. But we are electing a chief executive officer and that means we need someone who can get things done."
Fenty, reading from a BlackBerry handed to him by an aide, then named nearly a dozen housing projects that he said he pushed to completion, resulting in about 11,000 affordable units.
"There is construction happening all over the city," Fenty said. "It's fine to criticize. It's fine to have an opinion, but in these times, when people need affordable housing, I think we need an administration that has a proven record of getting things done. Look at the 11,000 units of affordable housing that we've built all around the city."
Fenty's theme of being a can-do-mayor first surfaced in his opening statement when he told the audience of progressive activists that he's had to "make tough decisions" to make the District "a world class city."
Fenty arrived at the forum before Gray. The mayor, who has been criticized at times for being too distant, walked around the room at Judiciary Square and tried to meet individually with each of the three dozen D.C. for Democracy members who were in attendance. Gray was late, but as the questioning began, Fenty appeared to grow increasingly uncomfortable. After about 20 minutes of questions, Fenty had his aide deliver a message to the moderator that he needed to wrap up the questioning so he could leave to make another appointment
In his opening statement, Gray stressed his background as a former agency head and executive director of a nonprofit. He also touted his work as a chairman, which he said he helped the council achieve an approval rating north of 50 percent.
"I am chair of a body that has one of the highest approval ratings for a legislative body in the nation," Gray said. "That's because the 13 members of this council know how to stay focused on the most important goal and operate in an open, transparent manner and work to move the people's business forum."
The sharpest distinctions between the candidates came in response a question about how they plan to address income disparities between the rich and poor.
Fenty suggested the disparity can be resolved by boosting economic development, which he said his administration has been focused on for the past four years.
"All these construction jobs in D.C. create jobs in D.C. and all these construction projects when finished create new jobs for people who can work in them," Fenty said. "There are new grocery stores in Ward 8. There are new restaurants in Ward 7 and I think as we go forward, our focus on education, which is the great equalizer, is not only going to restore the economy but do what we did this year...grow the population."
Gray countered the issues involving income inequalities are more fundamental than just creating new jobs.
"We have more jobs today than we had three years ago, yet we have more unemployment than we had three years ago," said Gray, noting the city's unemployment rate of 11 percent. "Lots of people feel their skills don't match with the jobs that are available, and the job of a mayor is to be able to make sure we have efforts in place to prepare people for those jobs."
Gray noted that the council recently restored job funding that had been cut by Fenty.
Alexander blamed companies that hire illegal immigrants for the city's high unemployment.
"There are jobs here in Washington D.C.," Alexander said. "But our people are not working those jobs."