updated 8/16/2005 11:02:30 PM ET 2005-08-17T03:02:30

The four Democrats hoping to unseat Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg met during their first debate Tuesday, using most of their time to criticize him rather than tussle with each other.

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With just four weeks until the Democratic primary, the candidates have been scrambling to distinguish themselves. Political analysts say they face a tough fight against the popular and billionaire incumbent, whose approval numbers continue to climb. Opinion polls also show that voters believe the mayor will win a second term.

But repeatedly during the 90-minute debate, the Democrats bashed Bloomberg on every issue, from affordable housing to education to mass transit to rebuilding lower Manhattan.

“This isn’t about getting into an argument with my Democratic colleagues; our argument is with Mike Bloomberg,” said Fernando Ferrer, a former Bronx borough president. “Our argument is a fundamental difference with the way we look at this city as Democrats and the way he looks at this city.”

Even when the candidates were allowed to ask questions of each other, some ended up simply questioning Bloomberg administration policies rather than the plans put forth by rival campaigns. The others on the panel were C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president; Anthony Weiner, a congressman from Brooklyn; and Gifford Miller, the City Council speaker.

Ferrer has retained his front-runner status in opinion polls despite a gaffe last spring that angered minority voters. He told a police union then that he did not believe the 1999 fatal shooting of an unarmed black African immigrant by four white police officers was a crime. The officers were acquitted of criminal charges, but the shooting came to symbolize police brutality.

Ferrer later said he wasn’t speaking clearly, but he has not apologized.

During a lightning round in which candidates could respond only “yes” or “no,” the Democrats all said they would not spend their own money on their campaigns if they had Bloomberg’s wealth, estimated at $5 billion. When asked if the city is better off than in 2001, Ferrer and Fields said no; Miller and Weiner said yes.

Bloomberg campaign adviser William Cunningham said the debate’s result was that “you did not see anybody on that stage with a vision of how to lead the city. They’re not talking about the issues that affect the people of this city.”

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