WASHINGTON, DC - October 20 - The Wilson building houses the Mayor's office and the City council chambers on October, 20, 2011 (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post). (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

THE RACE for D.C. mayor has been an understated affair this summer. Candidates have knocked on doors, held meet-and-greets and gone about the business of raising money and organizing their campaigns. But for the most part, they have drawn attention only from political reporters and insiders.

With the summer nearing an end, voters will start paying more attention, as they should. Important issues face the District. The 10 weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 general election will determine who will shape the city’s future over the next four years. In addition to the mayor’s race, there are contests for attorney general (the first ever), D.C. Council chair and other at-large and ward seats, the school board and D.C. delegate.

The main event is an unusually competitive election for mayor. Voters will have a real choice, something not always afforded them in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. The three major candidates — Democratic nominee and Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser, at-large council member David A. Catania and former council member Carol Schwartz — are accomplished individuals with proven records of public service. Given the strengths of these candidates and the importance of the issues facing the city, voters have a reason to expect a substantive debate.

That isn’t what we’ve seen so far; preliminary jousting has tended toward the negative and dwelled on trivialities: complaints about the timing of debates, unproven allegations about opponents’ motivations, silly campaign gimmicks.

We hope candidates turn to the bigger issues on voters’ minds: How can the public schools overcome the decades of neglect and catch up with the rest of the city’s progress? Is there an increasing divide between the haves and have-nots? Can the city continue to prosper and grow but retain affordable places to live?

We are not so naive as to think there is no place in political campaigns for the negative — or, as candidates would style it, drawing comparisons and making distinctions. It’s fair and expected to contrast records, raise questions about leadership style and temperament and challenge agendas. But when the debates get underway — the first is set for Sept. 18 — many voters will be hoping to hear the candidates engage on the issues in a constructive way that helps them determine who is best able to lead the city.