NEW YORK — Three Democratic candidates to replace Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stepped gingerly back onto the campaign trail Saturday, making their case for why they were best equipped to lead the nation's largest city through an unparalleled crisis.
But even as they appeared on a local TV station's candidates forum, they found themselves answering questions about the man they are seeking to succeed and the role they envision him playing in a new administration.
Since the terrorist attack that leveled the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and scuttled the city's primary, the candidates for mayor have been in limbo.
With the rescheduled primary on Tuesday, they face a political landscape that has changed dramatically. Talk of classroom size and affordable housing has been replaced by questions of security and redeveloping a devastated downtown.
But even as Public Advocate Mark Green, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone have fought to emerge from Giuliani's shadow before the attack, they are now struggling to compete with the persona he has developed leading the city through the crisis.
The Republican mayor has garnered widespread praise for his composure leading the city through the early days of the crisis. And Republican Gov. George Pataki fueled momentum building in some quarters to keep Giuliani by suggesting that New Yorkers might write in Giuliani's name.
Green, Ferrer, and Hevesi dismissed that idea on Saturday, saying it would be unconstitutional. Giuliani is barred by citywide term limits from seeking a third term.
"Don't waste your vote on a write-in," Green said.
Vallone, who has been a constant presence at Giuliani's side at press briefings on the attack, chose not to participate in the television forum in which the other Democratic candidates appeared.
The three candidates outlined their plans to rebuild downtown Manhattan.
But many of the questions focused on Giuliani. All three praised his performance in recent days.
In the Republican primary, also taking place Tuesday, media billionaire Michael Bloomberg has a commanding lead over former Rep. Herman Badillo.
The primary, which failed to attract much public enthusiasm to begin with, is almost a little noticed sideshow with 6,333 people still missing in the rubble in lower Manh" p17? 9 reen prepared for a news conference on 42nd Street Saturday, 24-year-old Chris Yoshida meandered by with a friend.
"Who's that?" he asked. Told it was a candidate for mayor he shrugged.
"It's so secondary to what's going on downtown I forgot all about the election," he said.