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The Debate Watcher: Candidates take to the airwaves

The prospect of free radio airtime drew out all eight Democratic mayoral candidates Wednesday night. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing this year’s D.C. mayoral candidate forums

The Hosts: WAMU-FM

The Venue: The National Public Radio affiliate’s new studio complex in Van Ness

The Candidates: Carlos Allen, Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells

The No-Shows: none

The Moderator: WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi, with questions from reporters Kavitha Cardoza, Patrick Madden and Tom Sherwood

The Crowd: About 80 in-house, plus thousands via broadcast

The Stakes: In the words of the fictional Mississippi Gov. Menelaus “Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” O’Daniel, “We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here. We’re mass communicatin’!” The prospect of two nearly uninterrupted hours on one of the region’s top-rated radio stations Wednesday evening was enough to get all eight Democratic primary candidate to show up and — mirabile dictu! — show up on time. The tradeoff was having to face pointed questions from a group of skilled journalists, as opposed to the generalities posed in many other candidate forums.

The Topics: Public school boundaries, the D.C. United stadium proposal, adult education, youth jobs, homeless policy, ethics and campaign finance, voting rights and statehood

The Upshot: The questioners were most interested in drawing out the four leaders in recent polls: Gray, Bowser, Evans and Wells. But the other four candidates fought for every word, particularly Orange and Lewis, who spoke up frequently and rarely gave concise answers. When Cardoza asked Orange on what he would do to help barely literate adults, he launched in to a frequent talking point on the need to stop promotions of elementary schools students unless they can “add, subtract, multiply and divide.” Cardoza prompted Orange to answer the question at hand: “We can’t go back in time, so what can we do today?” she asked. Said Orange, “We’re not going back in time. What we’re doing is fixing the future.” Lewis repeatedly emphasized her status as a city-hall outsider, saying she never took money from erstwhile city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson and asserting there are “no laws and no order in the District of Columbia.” But she assumed an insider-friendly stance when she said she rejected open primaries, which would allow non-Democrats to weigh in on decisive political races. “I am a Democrat through and through,” she explained.

The Moment of Truth: When the questioning turned to ethics, Bowser described drafting the legislation that created the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, saying “the standard has been set and set high.” But that drew tough followup questions from Madden and comments from Wells questioning her commitment to campaign finance reform. Bowser parried by noting she budgeted additional funds for additional campaign auditors. Madden then pressed Gray for a “detailed accounting of what happened in 2010 with your campaign.” Hizzoner proceeded to deliver a bravura filibuster: “I think first of all, I’ve indicated, I’ve tried to provide what information I know, Patrick. You know, one of the things I’ve tried to do is help people understand who Vince Gray is in the first place. I was born and raised in the District of Columbia. I was raised in a one-bedroom apartment where I grew up sleeping in a rollaway bed next to my brother in the living room. …” After a 45-second biographical sketch, Gray closed with, “I have done the best job I could providing information,” and the broadcast went to a break.

The Crowd Favorite: With the studio audience silent, and the bulk of the listeners otherwise ensconced in their own homes or cars, crowd reaction is difficult to judge. The front-runners, for the most part, stuck to their campaign personas: Gray portrayed himself as fully in control of the levers of government, drilling into the minutiae of programs and proposals; Bowser sought to prove herself as the foremost alternative to Gray, while Wells repeatedly hammered away at ethics and campaign finance. Evans perhaps played closest to type, responding on several occasions in his favored mode of adult-in-the-room. He defended his vote to delay the first attorney general election, and, when asked by why the council hasn’t funded a bill requiring the city to store the belongings of evicted residents, said the measure was unworkable. “I listen to all of the talk up here and it leaves me puzzled in many ways,” Evans said. “I almost feel like the skunk at the picnic at these things, because everybody’s promising everything to everyone.” Without a fiscally responsible mayor, he added, “we are going to find ourselves back in the jam again.”

The Zinger: The candidates were asked about the efforts to break out of the crowded field. Bowser cited the recent WRC-TV/WAMU-FM/Informer/Marist poll, showing Gray with 28 percent support and herself with 20 percent support among likely voters. “Two out of three people don’t want Vince Gray to be re-elected, and so they’re looking at our campaign very closely as the campaign that can make sure we get a fresh start in the mayor’s office,” she said. A few moments later, Gray offered his retort: “I guess eight out of 10 people apparently don’t want her, either.”