New York rivals seize the day as the absence of Michael Bloomberg angers voters
With the New York mayoral election a month away, the result was seen as more or less in the bag for incumbent Michael Bloomberg - until he decided to snub the first televised debate of the campaign on Thursday.
'If you want to lead this city, you have an obligation to let New Yorkers know - in as many forums as possible - how you intend to lead this city,' said Democrat rival Fernando Ferrer, who faced off against Conservative contender Thomas Ognibene in the debate at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
'There's no question in my mind that he's made a great political mistake,' added Republican Charles Rangel.
Catcalls were heard at the theatre after it was announced Mr Bloomberg was not attending. An empty chair on the stage underlined his absence.
'I can't imagine anyone would turn down the opportunity to headline at the Apollo,' said Mr Ferrer, bidding for the third time to become the city's first Hispanic mayor.
Things were going smoothly for Mr Bloomberg - crime has fallen 20 per cent since he took office in 2002, and despite fewer officers, less money and more work than ever for local police, the FBI has named New York 'America's safest city'. Add to that 62,000 new jobs in two years, a US$3 billion programme creating 68,000 new homes, a 15 per cent pay rise for teachers and a smoking ban that even most bars are happy about.
A local radio network and a cable TV station that broadcast the debate highlighted Mr Bloomberg's absence with an empty podium. Mr Bloomberg instead attended a dinner held by a gay rights group, before receiving an award from the Turkish American Education Foundation.
Black leaders have accused Mr Bloomberg of dodging the region's issues and insulting voters across the city by his no-show.
'It's an insult to our community, a slap in our face that Mr Bloomberg won't come to our community to answer questions,' said the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Mr Bloomberg has hit back, claiming he has visited Harlem 70 times in the past four years.
For Mr Ferrer, it represents the biggest opportunity of his campaign. Before the debate 'debate' was ignited, the general consensus was that Mr Ferrer had little chance of defeating Mr Bloomberg, who spent US$74 million of his US$5 billion personal fortune on his 2002 election campaign, and is prepared to spend whatever it takes to assure his re-election this time.
Because Mr Bloomberg funds his own campaign, he is not under the obligations set by the Campaign Finance Board to participate in debates, unlike Mr Ferrer.
During the Democrat's primary election last month that saw Mr Ferrer nominated to run for mayor, fewer than 460,000 of the 2.6 million registered Democrats in New York City turned out to vote.
Many Democrats even said they would back Mr Bloomberg when interviewed at exit polls. Mr Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat until he switched parties in 2001 to avoid a crowded democratic mayoral ticket.
Nevertheless, Mr Ferrer soldiers on, accusing Mr Bloomberg of applying Reagan-style 'trickle-down economics' at the expense of working families and the poor.
During the debate, Mr Ferrer challenged Mr Bloomberg's record on housing and schools.
Mr Ognibene called the Republican mayor 'just another liberal Democrat'.