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With large field, mayoral forums to test time, spaces

The rules for one round will be simple: Ten contestants square off on an auditorium stage, facing four questions apiece. Answers will be strictly limited to 90 seconds, with two timekeepers on hand to quash any hint of a filibuster.

This is not a new Boston-based quiz show, but ground rules for an education-themed discussion Wednesday for candidates hoping to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

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The season of mayoral forums is kicking off in earnest Wednesday with one candidate event before breakfast and the other after dinner. The forums might almost outnumber baseball games this summer at Fenway Park, as every advocacy group, community organization, and neighborhood watch clamors to question the hopefuls.

The gatherings present unique logistical challenges. The field of candidates will be crammed onto stages and into church halls. Giving each participant a two-minute opening statement will take a half hour. Candidates may win points for brevity.

“It’s like speed dating with a mayoral candidate,” said John M. Tobin Jr., a former city councilor. “There are so many of these scheduled between now and the preliminary election that the mayoral candidates will become this nomadic tribe that goes from forum to forum.”

Candidates have been invited to a Boston Greenfest Mayoral Debate on City Hall Plaza; an education-themed forum at the Boston Public Library; and an event by Young Democrats of Massachusetts at English High School. Campaigns have been contacted about events hosted by Second Church of Dorchester, Greater Boston Labor Council, and neighborhood groups in Charlestown, Dorchester, and South Boston.

Nine candidates flocked to one of the first forums, held in early May at the Covenant Congregational Church in Jamaica Plain.

Event organizer Liz O’Connor used a timer on her cellphone to buzz candidates when time was up. Each participant got a three-minute opening statement and took questions from the audience, pushing the West Roxbury Courthouse Neighborhood Association forum past the allotted 90 minutes.

“It was hard!” O’Connor said in an e-mail. “I should have figured out a better format, but honestly didn’t think they’d all show up so early in the campaign.”

On Wednesday, the first forum will be held at 8:30 a.m. by the Boston Society of Architects, which expects more than 200 spectators to crowd the event at 290 Congress St. The society began planning the forum in early April and began inviting candidates until they hit a snag. Two dozen people came to City Hall and applied for nomination papers to run for mayor.

“The field ballooned to 24, and we sat down and said we just don’t have the capacity,” said Eric White, executive director of Boston Society of Architects. “Giving 24 candidates 2 minutes each, you don’t really get any substance.”

The mayoral field eventually narrowed to 15 potential candidates. At least nine will appear on the ballot for the Sept. 24 preliminary election. Election officials continue to review nomination signatures submitted by another six.

The Boston Society of Architects limited the pool even more: They invited 11 candidates to their forum and eight have confirmed that they will attend. Each participant has been asked to forgo an open statement and have a response ready to a question concerning building development, transportation, housing, and growth.

“I hope that the candidates will enter the forum in the spirit of wanting to enlighten voters on where they stand on the issues and not just repeat their talking points,” said the moderator, Renée Loth, editor of ArchitectureBoston, the quarterly magazine published by the society of architects. “I don’t have my mind set on any candidate, and I think that’s true of many voters. I’m hoping there’s a lot of these forums.”

As former editorial page and political editor for the Globe, Loth has experience moderating unwieldy debates. In 1998, she faced 12 Congressional candidates in a scene described in the Globe as looking “a bit like The Last Supper instead of One of the First of a Thousand Forums.”

The second feature Wednesday will be at 7 p.m. in the gymnasium of the Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale. More than 600 people are expected to attend the event hosted by Stand for Children Massachusetts, which advocates on behalf of public schools.

Stand for Children limited the number of candidates to 10 to make the debate more manageable.

Spokesman Sam Castañeda Holdren said they only invited candidates who met “basic tests of viability,” which included a political account with a balance of at least $10,000; having hired campaign staff; a functioning campaign website; and active Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Even with only 10 candidates, organizers are determined to be strict with a stopwatch.

“They are going to have to be succinct in order to get their point across in 90 seconds,” Holdren said.

“I don’t look at that as a challenge, I look at it as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for campaigns to hone in on their message.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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