Mayor Thomas M. Menino and his challenger, Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan, sparred in a debate yesterday over issues from potholes to Boston's ability to evacuate the city. Both sides saw the encounter as crucial as they head into the final month of the campaign.
Hennigan, who viewed the debate as her main chance to gain an edge after several months of struggling to engage voters, sought to throw the mayor off balance and went on the attack early. She charged that in his 12-year tenure Menino failed as a steward of the city and as a provider of services, from public safety and schools to street repair.
''Street sweeping, snow plowing, trash collection; it doesn't get any more basic that," she said. ''If after 12 years this administration hasn't gotten it right, do you really think that in the next four they would get them right?"
Menino, who had been warned by aides to avoid losing his cool, defended his record and repeatedly sounded themes depicting an experienced, hard-working administration that has brought better life to all corners of the city.
He said the city has better schools, more affordable housing, and a low crime rate, and he asserted that he had maintained high levels of services, despite an $80 million reduction in state and federal funding.
''It's about growth in Boston, growth in education, growth in public service, growth in public safety, jobs," he said. ''As mayor of this city, I'll continue to work with all of you, because staying the same doesn't get you anywhere. We have got to continue to put forward new programs and new ideas."
The stakes were high for both candidates. Hennigan was seeking a place in the minds of voters in a race that she has called a one-time shot at the city's highest office.
She had hoped for a chance to question him directly, but Menino, not an eloquent speaker, chose the format, which had the candidates on stage, taking questions from members of the studio audience. Some 80 audience members, who were supposedly neutral, had been chosen by a marketing firm to reflect Boston's ''diverse voting community."
The only televised debate scheduled in the race so far was aired live on ''Greater Boston" on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). It will also be available for viewing on
''Are our neighborhoods safer, our sidewalks and streets well maintained?" Hennigan said, defining the central message of her campaign. ''Power outages. Exploding manholes. Soaring real-estate taxes. All this in Boston, the most expensive city in the nation in which to live. And now a fourth term? We've had enough of the Menino method."
She accused him of bowing to special interests and giving tax breaks to favored developers.
''This administration is too close to downtown development and not to the people who live here," she said.
Menino stormed out of a television studio four years ago after a debate with his opponent, Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen, who needled and attacked him for much of the half hour. This time he deftly sidestepped the criticism and appeared cool, even after critical questions from the audience.
''How can you justify the inequitable distribution of neighborhood services, especially in the lower-income area that is so apparent when you drive around the city?" Katherine Tragos of West Roxbury asked him.
''I'm very proud of what we've done in the minority community of Boston," Menino answered. ''Take a look at Blue Hill Avenue. Take a look at Dudley. Look at the housing that has been built in those neighborhoods, the schools. Ask anybody who lives there. We're very committed. We haven't left them behind. We have them on the front of the bus working with us."
Naida Simpson of Dorchester told Menino that her car was ''literally falling apart because of the potholes and the deplorable conditions of the streets."
''I think we've done a decent job," Menino responded. ''We could do a better job. We're in the midst of changing the way we do things."
Hennigan, who had prepared with a communications consultant for several days before the face-off, smiled broadly throughout the hourlong debate and frequently stepped in front of Menino while she was taking questions. Menino jabbed the air as he spoke, never looking directly at his opponent.
''I did extremely well," Menino said afterwards. ''I'm ready to go again."
When Hennigan made a plea for more debates, however, Menino did not respond.
As he left the studio, a crowd of supporters carrying green-and-white campaign signs welcomed him, chanting ''Four more years."
Hennigan declared the night a success. ''He tried to defend his record, but he couldn't," she said.
It was unclear whether the voters in the room shared their view.
''I'm just waiting for vision, for leadership, and I haven't seen it," said Jesse Levey, of the South End. ''Where is the vision for the 21st century for the city?"
Gene Tinory of West Roxbury said he was turned off by the Menino demonstration outside the studio. ''It was extremely inappropriate," said Tinory, who was leaning toward Hennigan.