For Erik Rauterkus, planning Sunday's debate was a simple civics lesson. A senior at Obama Academy, and head of the scholastic Youth and Government Pennsylvania organization, he thought it might be cool to invite two of the more vocal challengers to Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Democratic candidacy.
But Mr. Rauterkus, 18, was competing in a high school swim meet March 1 when he received a phone call from his grandmother that changed everything.
"She said 'Luke's out of this race.' I didn't see it coming, but then suddenly I thought, 'Wow, this could be huge.' "
So it was that his simple debate became a media event, attracting TV, the local newspapers and more than 200 curious spectators to the auditorium of the former Peabody High School in East Liberty.
Besides the original two candidates -- city Controller Michael Lamb and city Councilman Bill Peduto -- the field comprised council president Darlene Harris, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, state representative Jake Wheatley and city resident A.J. Richardson, who listed his occupation as "school bus monitor" when filing to run for mayor.
They fielded questions from students Sadik Roberts, Annie Widom and Dynae Shaw pertaining to city schools, crime, improving neighborhoods and, briefly, corruption. With answers limited to 90 -- and in some cases, 60 -- seconds, elaboration was not possible.
"I think sometimes the problem is you don't get the chance to give the full answers," said Mr. Lamb, who wore a green tie on St. Patrick's Day. There will be other opportunities between now and the May 21 primary, he said.
"But I thought [the debate] was great. Any time we have a chance to talk about Pittsburgh's future is a great day."
He said Mr. Ravenstahl's announcement that he would not seek re-election has not affected campaign strategy: "We're out there every day, talking to voters about a new leadership in Pittsburgh; so for me, our daily routine really hasn't changed."
Mr. Peduto said he was aware of a change, now that the mayor will not be running again.
"I feel now -- instead of trying to do a contrast between myself and Luke -- I am able to do a vision of what it is I want to do. It makes me feel more free and allows the message to remain positive about what Pittsburgh can be, and that's really the playing field that I do best."
Once the debate began, the candidates ventured short, overview responses. Mr. Wheatley, whom Mr. Rauterkus said was detained by a church-related event, arrived 30 minutes into the debate and missed first rounds of questioning.
With such a brief time for response, the trick was in making points quickly. Mr. Wagner was sure-footed, calling for the next mayor to be an advocate for the schools, "and I will be that advocate."
He, as did Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb, appeared to use more specifics as part of their discussions.
The mood was congenial, with general pleasantries all around, and no conflicting talking points. The candidates also seemed to agree on the importance of gaining tax revenue from nonprofits, and that minimum wage for workers of huge companies was just not going to cut it anymore.
After telling an anecdote about his grandfather dying young after working in the mills, Mr. Peduto drew applause when he said, "The mills never left, they only just moved up the hill. They're [called] UPMC, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon."
Sitting near the front of the auditorium Sunday was one particularly interested spectator: Republican candidate Joshua Wander of Squirrel Hill.
"I'm not surprised at all by any of their statements," Mr. Wander said afterwards. "I think it's pretty much what's been said for the past 80 years in this city. The same rhetoric over and over again, just with different words."
If given the chance to address any of the debate's subjects, Mr. Wander said "probably on crime because that's my background. I was formerly a state constable, and I'm a military veteran. So public safety is very close to my heart."
But he wouldn't venture a statement in 60 seconds or less. "I wouldn't want to answer right now," he said, laughing. "I'm more interested in what the other candidates are saying."education - neigh_city - electionsmunicipal
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published March 18, 2013 4:00 AM