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Suddenly, Boston sees a lively race for mayor

There was a good chance that Boston’s race for a rarely open mayoral seat would be a dud. The 12-candidate field includes a handful of familiar politicians from City Hall and state government, a couple of wide-eyed nonprofit heads, and a few little-known candidates who surprised people by gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot. Campaign insiders predicted that field organizing, not issues, would dominate the summer months. And many assumed that voters wouldn’t focus on the Sept. 24 preliminary election until after Labor Day.

Such concerns weren’t justified. The campaign, for the most part, has been lively and substantive. As debate sponsors eschew the awkward, 12-candidate lineup in favor of events featuring a couple of candidates at a time, candidates are taking advantage of the smaller forums to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field.

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City Councilor John Connolly, the first entrant in the race, is clearly finding his voice. He delivered a seamless speech Wednesday night to a large group of supporters in Dorchester, emphasizing the links between the city’s education, housing, and employment challenges. His clarity and focus were notable because of past attempts to straddle issues. In recent weeks, for example, the city councilor toyed with the bad idea of replacing the mayorally appointed school board with an elected or hybrid model. But at the speech in Dorchester, where support for an elected board runs high, he came out unequivocally for retaining the appointed board. It’s important for the mayor to be directly accountable for the quality of education in Boston. And it was important for Connolly to take a firm stand.

After a slow start, Charlotte Golar Richie appears to be gaining strength and confidence. The former head of the city’s neighborhood development office looked bored in early forums. But she is making headway by emphasizing her hands-on experience in city government. Where Golar Richie once came across as aloof, she’s now rolling up her sleeves — literally, at a Dorchester gathering last week — in a way that is starting to connect with voters.

On the issues, there are more similarities than differences among candidates. In theory, that dynamic can make for a dull race. But this group of candidates shares an important belief that animates their proposals: Boston would be lost without the connective tissue provided by its middle class — longtime families and single newcomers alike. During a debate that streamed live on Boston.com Wednesday, state Representative Martin Walsh and City Councilors Michael Ross and Rob Consalvo smoothly covered topics ranging from reasonably priced housing to the reinstatement (or not) of happy hours. Each candidate was able to place such issues into the larger context of an economically diversified Boston.

District Attorney Dan Conley is gamely trying to fight a summer crime wave while also bringing attention to the need to rehabilitate offenders. Former health executive Bill Walczak, meanwhile, has connected with some voters by taking a principled stance against casino gambling as a public health threat. Former school board member John Barros is attracting second looks from business leaders for his strong pro-growth stance. And candidates Felix Arroyo, Charles Yancey, and Charles Clemons Jr. have been effective at reminding voters of the gulf between the city’s rich and poor.

Campaign events and candidate forums, for the most part, have been well attended. Those who fear that Boston will flounder without Tom Menino’s experienced hand in City Hall may yet be proven right, but there’s been little evidence to further such worries in the mayoral race so far. Instead, the 2013 contest looks more and more like the visionary exploration of the city’s future that only the most starry-eyed optimists were predicting back in the spring. While there have been few sparks in this race, there has been plenty of light.

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