JONATHAN LEMIRE | AP
NEW YORK (AP) -- New York City mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota exchanged their angriest barbs of the campaign during a wild, free-wheeling debate Tuesday, frequently raising their voices as they fought over charges of race-baiting and the records of two former mayors that may provide clues to the city's future.
Though voters will go to the polls in two weeks to elect Mayor Michael Bloomberg's successor, the showdown often felt like a battle between his two immediate predecessors: Democrat David Dinkins, for whom de Blasio worked, and Republican Rudolph Giuliani, for whom Lhota was a top aide.
Dinkins and Giuliani squared off in two contentious elections, in 1989 and 1993. On Tuesday, it felt like Round III.
In particular, the debate was marked by a nasty back-and-forth over an ad released by Lhota last week that featured graphic images of violence to suggest that the city would return to its pre-Giuliani, crime-filled past if de Blasio is elected.
"It's race-baiting and it's fear-mongering, and you know it," said de Blasio, the city's public advocate who is looking to become the city's first Democratic mayor since his former boss was elected in 1989.
"Anybody who looks at that ad knows what he's up to and it's what his boss, Rudy Giuliani, used to be up to," said de Blasio. "And it's not what a mayor should be doing."
Lhota, who is facing a huge deficit in the polls, angrily retorted that he was "sick and tired of you impugning the integrity of Rudy Giuliani." He then argued that the "murders that happened, the race riots that happened" under Dinkins led to his loss to Giuliani in their 1993 rematch.
"That's the reason why he got thrown out -- because he was divisive," said Lhota, who was seemingly so irritated by de Blasio's claim that the ad was filled with racial imagery that Lhota blurted out: "What is the color of the sky on your planet?"
To that, de Blasio smiled and responded: "Mr. Lhota appears to think he has his own planet," drawing some laughs from the audience. But de Blasio also seemed irritated at times as Lhota adopted a significantly more aggressive tone than in their first debate last week.
In that meeting, Lhota appeared caught off guard by de Blasio's decision to eschew the play-it-safe strategy he'd used since the primary and go on the offensive, repeatedly linking Lhota to the conservative tea party, a natural play in a city where registered Democrats outnumber the GOP by nearly 6-to-1.
De Blasio went to that well again on Tuesday, but Lhota was ready with some snappy comebacks, twice suggesting that de Blasio was so "obsessed with tea" that he resembled the Mad Hatter from "Alice in Wonderland."
Lhota also brandished his bipartisan credentials by stressing that he was far more moderate than the national Republican Party and noting that he was appointed to run the region's transit agency by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. His work steering the agency through Superstorm Sandy, which struck the city one year ago next week, was the impetus for his mayoral campaign.
Lhota also invoked Cuomo by claiming that the governor would not sign off on de Blasio's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten, the public advocate's signature campaign promise. De Blasio insisted that Cuomo was open to the idea.
Though Lhota delivered a strong debate performance, his mayoral bid still faces long odds. Every general election poll, including one released Monday, has him trailing de Blasio by more than 40 points.
Though several independent candidates will be on the general election ballot, they failed to make fundraising and polling thresholds and, therefore, were barred from the hour-long debate, which aired live on television and was sponsored by WCBS, El Diario, several radio stations and the city's campaign finance board.
De Blasio and Lhota will meet for a third and final time Oct. 29. The election is Nov. 5.