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The perils of inevitability

Mayoral candidates Michelle Wu (left) and Annissa Essaibi George faced off in a WBZ-TV debate last week.WBZ-TV

Boston’s mayoral race is looking pretty lopsided right now.

That’s great for City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has gathered up a mountain of endorsements and leads fellow Councilor Annissa Essaibi George by miles, according to a recent poll.

But is it the best thing for the city?

Like other political prognosticators, guests at the Rainbow Adult Day Care Center in Fields Corner seemed pretty sure on Friday morning that Wu will lead Boston come November.

“I think you have a 99 percent chance you are going to be mayor,” Hunt Vu told Wu, who had come to deliver her pitch to more than a hundred Vietnamese and Chinese seniors just after their morning calisthenics.

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Wu heard that voice of certainty, and resisted.

“We will have zero percent chance of winning unless everyone votes,” she told him.

She addressed the crowd in English, then in Mandarin. Others translated her words into Cantonese and Vietnamese. Many were transfixed by the candidate as she told the story of her life as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, now seeking an office of which she’d never dared dream when she was younger.

Before Wu arrived at the event, Lien Nguyen, a retired social worker, said she was undecided about the race. She’d met Essaibi George a couple of times, she said, and she liked the former teacher. But after Wu spoke, Nguyen rose and declared herself.

“I believe we will support you and wish you good luck!” she said. Reading from Wu’s campaign flier, she ticked off the policies she’d underlined: anti-discrimination policies and multilingual city services, among others. In Vietnamese, Nguyen asked the crowd to clap if they agreed Wu should be mayor, and was met with loud applause.

“I love Annissa, I really do,” Nguyen said afterward. “But this one is more impressive to me.”

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This is the sweetest of spots for Wu. Last week’s poll, by MassINC Polling Group, showed her drawing 63 percent of Asian voters. Wu trounced Essaibi George among every other group too, drawing 57 percent support overall — a 32-point lead.

Poll numbers can deceive, of course, and paltry turnout — a real risk — could make those numbers look silly. Still, it looks a lot like the kind of mayoral contest we usually see in Boston, where incumbents hold what look like insurmountable leads over any challenger brave enough to take them on.

Except Wu is not an incumbent, and the race wasn’t supposed to shake out like this. An open mayoral contest attracted five impressive candidates. But while the other hopefuls battled for second-place Wu, the front-runner, stayed more or less above the fray, taking little fire.

Essaibi George carved out her own, moderate lane in that primary, and it got her to the final. Has she maxed out the moderate and conservative voters who turn out in every election? Could be. Victory will require drawing voters away from Wu.

She certainly tried that in the first televised one-on-one debate on Wednesday, accusing Wu of trucking in unrealistic proposals no mayor can realize. But Wu would not be drawn into arguments over specifics. When Essaibi George suggested Wu’s support for rent control would undercut the economy, for example, Wu said she was using “scare tactics,” and thinking too small. But she didn’t explain why Essaibi George was wrong. That pattern of criticism and non-response played out several times, Wu refusing to budge off her talking points.

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It’s a time-honored strategy for a front-runner, whose only job is to avoid blowing her lead, even if that leaves an impression of excess caution, of less passion for the job.

But what’s best for the front-runner is not necessarily best for the victor, or for the city: If Wu does win, she will be a better mayor for having defended her policies under fire. Voters quickly forget the glow of election night: Mayors must sell their ideas — particularly their most ambitious ones — to a skeptical public every day. Real engagement now would only make that easier.

Essaibi George, fighting to stay in this race, will be more aggressive in their next meeting. Wu, and the city, should welcome that. She must not seem, or be, complacent. What doesn’t kill her candidacy will only make it stronger.

But that’s a risk she might be unwilling to take.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.