First Mayoral Debate

Much at stake for mayor in debate
Menino to face foes in format he does not prefer

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has tried to avoid face-to-face confrontations in past campaigns, will square off in perhaps the most important debate of his political career tonight as he goes head to head with three opponents eager to topple him from his perch.

The mayor tried yesterday to downplay expectations for the debate, saying he prefers to talk to small groups of voters and is not a spin master. But political observers said the debate, which will be broadcast live on WBZ-TV at 7 p.m., will be a crucial opportunity for his challengers to establish their viability against the powerful incumbent.

“That’s what people are going to be looking for: Who’s going to stand up and cast a big enough shadow to compete with him effectively,’’ said Bruce C. Bolling, a former City Council president. “The three of them are going to be looking for a knockout, because that’s what they need to have.’’

Menino has a lot riding on the debate. Riding high in the polls and with a vast fund-raising advantage, he assiduously avoids forums where he might face sharp questioning from opponents, preferring instead to make the rounds before friendly audiences at senior centers and block parties.

“Debating has really not been his forte,’’ said Bolling, who was one of seven challengers who debated Menino in the 1993 mayor’s race. “He has not been the most comfortable in that kind of environment. He prefers small groups, handshakes, meetings in the neighborhood. He does that better than anyone I’ve seen. Therein lies his strength.’’

The hourlong debate, which marks the final sprint to the Sept. 22 preliminary election, will feature Menino, Councilors at Large Sam Yoon and Michael F. Flaherty, and South End businessman Kevin McCrea, standing behind podiums. There will be no studio audience. The candidates will answer questions separately, and then the moderator, political analyst Jon Keller, will open the floor to free-wheeling rebuttals.

“I’m just going to answer the questions that the moderator gives me,’’ Menino said yesterday. “That’s my goal: answer the questions the best I can and factually.’’

Flaherty’s campaign sought to dispel the perception that the mayor is not a good debater, calling that a “smokescreen’’ that helps him lower expectations for his performance.