Columnist

It’s instructive to hear how supporters try to explain away the shortcomings of each of the two leading candidates for D.C. mayor.

Backers of D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) emphasize what a great team of advisers she would have. They’re experienced! They’re knowledgeable! They would include former mayor Anthony Williams!

What’s more, unlike her patron, former mayor Adrian Fenty (D), Bowser supposedly listens to her counselors. What a switch.

This bit of reassurance is supposed to compensate for Bowser’s undistinguished record in more than seven years on the council. Cautious to a fault, she has shown little aptitude or enthusiasm for exerting strong leadership on important issues before the city.

Meanwhile, allies of council member David Catania (I-At Large) stress that he’s matured and learned to rein in his nasty streak.

His performance in the four debates, which ended Thursday, did suggest that some evolution has taken place. By the last two, Catania was so mild-mannered that he came across as a detail-obsessed policy nerd.

Of course, such good behavior could merely be a temporary adjustment. His earlier, dismissive attacks on Bowser backfired when she artfully used them to claim the role of victim.

The two camps’ defensiveness highlights a distasteful reality for the District electorate as early voting begins Monday: Both of the top candidates have significant flaws. As voters decide how to cast their ballots, the question is over which type of drawbacks to risk.

Do you go for Bowser, whose true passion seems to lie not in governing but rather in organizing successful political campaigns? Or Catania, whose hard-charging approach has secured major achievements over the years but left him without the endorsement of any of his 12 colleagues on the council?

(Note to Carol Schwartz and her supporters: She’s had a long and distinguished political career. But she’s third in the polls and has been out of office for five years. Her humor and expansive personality have enlivened the debates, but she admitted she was not up to date on some current issues. Is this a token mention? Yes.)

It’s important to note that Bowser and Catania differ mainly over management style and effectiveness, rather than ideology or where they want to lead the District.

Even though Catania was once a Republican, he and Bowser support approximately the same moderate liberal agenda for the District. Both favor school reform, affordable housing, gun control and same-sex marriage.

“There is not a great deal of policy difference between them,” said George Derek Musgrove, a history professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is writing a book about race and democracy in the District.

“They are, quite frankly, running on style,” Musgrove said. “Bowser is trying to portray Catania as a hothead, and Catania is trying to portray Bowser as a lightweight.”

Bowser, who has been consistently ahead in the polls, proved again in the debates that she is no pushover. She was comfortable addressing the issues, coped with Catania’s criticisms and regularly put him on the defensive as well.

Still, as I noted during the primary campaign, Bowser seldom goes in depth to discuss particulars of what she would do as mayor. She relies on broad objectives and well-rehearsed talking points. She likes to say she would address key issues by bringing together people to study them.

By contrast, Catania boasts of bills he has shepherded through the council and shows off his public policy expertise, especially regarding education.

An early exchange in Thursday’s final debate, at Anacostia High School, illustrated the difference. Moderator Bruce Johnson of WUSA (Channel 9) asked the candidates to say specifically what they would do to reform the schools.

Bowser talked generally about the need to reduce inequalities in investment and concluded: “The biggest thing that I think that remains is making sure our middle schools are ready, that we’re telling parents that we’re going to have great buildings, great leadership, great curriculum.”

Catania first talked about two bills that he pushed through the council to curb social promotion and increase spending on at-risk students. He ended by listing three nearby schools that had recently lost their principals — Simon Elementary, Kramer Middle and Ballou High — and said he would make it “a focus” to improve stability among principals.

Perhaps District voters would do best to choose on the basis of whether they prize continuity or change in government right now.

Catania would be a disrupter by design. He would battle with the council and shake up bureaucracies throughout the government.

Bowser, a more traditional politician, would probably settle for lesser achievements for the sake of consensus and to protect her popularity.

Your pick, D.C. voters.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.