New York City's mayoral candidates increasingly look to magnify small differences as they claw for an edge in the Sept. 10 primary.
Strategically, the moment demands it.
The issue positions of the Democratic contenders fall within a small spectrum to the left of the American center. Such similarity motivates them to sound bolder than they may ordinarily be -- and to put their rivals' resumes through the shredder.
Flip their ideologies, and you could be listening to the past two Republican primaries for president. The urgent aim is the same: Stand out from the pack and damage the competition.
Predictably, because his poll numbers have jumped, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio drew the heaviest fire from rivals during a Manhattan debate Wednesday -- an obvious bid, as strategists would put it, to "up his negatives."
Comptroller John Liu claimed de Blasio came late to the fight against closing hospitals. Anthony Weiner asked whether a certain report, never released, would show de Blasio could be tied to a past City Council slush-fund mess. Ex-Comptroller Bill Thompson accused de Blasio of lying in ads. Council Speaker Christine Quinn claimed de Blasio's wife got personal and hurtful by implying Quinn couldn't advocate for children because she didn't have any. Sal Albanese said de Blasio aides should have been fired for "kill the police" Twitter messages.
In turn, de Blasio displayed defensive fight, citing past hospital preservation efforts in his council district; denying knowledge of what Weiner was talking about (backed up by Quinn); denying his wife's Quinn criticisms were at all personal, and speaking of cops as "true heroes" in a 20-year reduction in crime.
The Democrats' intense crossfire over the issue of random street searches by police actually shows the positional challenge they all face on law enforcement -- even as they give their competing rhetorical signals.
None wish to look pro-crime -- or anti-liberty.
Months ago, among mainstream candidates, only Liu said outright that he would end stop-and-frisk, while the others spoke only of changing the program. Now that a federal judge has slammed the current practice as unconstitutional, the lines of conflict have shifted.
But all seemed to accept the ruling, while Republican mayoral candidates all vow to appeal it. Now there's a clear disagreement on a hot-button issue.
Among Democrats, Quinn acclaims as a great stride the council's two-thirds vote Thursday to override Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto of legislation creating a new police inspector general. Her rivals point to her past statements of support for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Thompson opposes the IG bill but suggests tickets be issued during each police stop to document the reason. De Blasio says he will change police commissioners upon taking office -- which is far from revolutionary, since mayors almost always do that. He also expresses support for a "racial profiling" bill opposed by Quinn as extraneous since that practice is already outlawed.
De Blasio and Weiner urged modest tax hikes for the wealthiest of New Yorkers. Thompson derided de Blasio's proposal, aimed at funding universal pre-K programs, but didn't rule out tax hikes as a "last resort." Quinn spoke of only "progressive" tax increases if necessary.
These are differences, for sure -- but still within a narrow-to-medium ideological span. Under such conditions, slamming the opposition as ineffective or deceptive offers a path to distinction. That's just how the game is played.