(CNN)The gloves are off.

With less than three weeks until New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, the eight leading candidates came together on Wednesday night for their first in-person debate — a salty affair that included a series of tense, often personal clashes that underscored just how wide open the race remains after months of campaigning.The gathering began amid a spike in violent crime across the city and increased concern over what kind of educational system its children will return to when full-time in-person schooling resumes this fall.These are the New York City mayoral primary candidatesThese are the New York City mayoral primary candidatesThese are the New York City mayoral primary candidatesPolling of the contest has been sparse, but if the candidates’ cross-examinations of one another — prompted by the moderators — are any indication, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and businessman and former 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang are the perceived front-runners. The pair squared off in the evening’s most cutting exchange, with Yang questioning Adams’ ethics and Adams saying Yang was unqualified for the job they are both seeking.But the debate also provided a platform for former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia to build on the momentum she has gained following a pair of high-profile endorsements by touting the breadth of her experience in city government. Read MoreCivil rights attorney Maya Wiley, a former counsel to outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Comptroller Scott Stringer also made compelling cases to progressives who are searching for a champion in a campaign that the left has largely sat out — either uninspired by the candidates, otherwise engaged in city council races or both. Here are five takeaways from the first in-person 2021 New York City mayoral debate:Yang and Adams throw haymakers at each otherAs in their first official debate, the candidates were asked to question one another. But the segment was more like a joint interview of Adams, who was pressed on a variety of issues, including his comments about carrying a gun as mayor and whether he would commit to accepting the results of the ranked-choice election.Adams, in response to Yang, said he would, but that was just an appetizer for what came next.The Bronx borough president, a retired former police captain, scorched Yang over his decision to leave the city with his family during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year — and suggested that Yang might “flee again during a difficult time.””How the hell do we have you become our mayor with a record like that?” Adams asked — rhetorically — after reading off a list of criticisms.But Yang, whose upbeat, positive campaign style has of late included more pointed remarks about his rivals, gave as good as he got. In this case, he questioned Adams’ ethical record, which has come under scrutiny in the past by local, state and federal entities.”Eric, we all know that you’ve been investigated for corruption everywhere you’ve gone,” Yang said. “You’ve achieved the rare trifecta of corruption investigations.” Eventually, Stringer interjected with a zinger of his own: “You’re both right,” he said, “neither of you should be mayor.”Crime takes center stage — againFor months, this campaign has lacked a single issue that could draw clear distinctions among the leading candidates. It has one now: violent crime and how to combat and prevent it.Adams has made it the focus of his pitch to voters, but his complicated record — as both a supporter of more aggressive policing and decades of advocacy for reform in the NYPD — made him a lightning rod on the debate stage. In particular, his qualified support for “stop and frisk” came under harsh scrutiny. Rising crime in New York has gripped the mayoral race. Eric Adams says he alone can fix it.Rising crime in New York has gripped the mayoral race. Eric Adams says he alone can fix it.Rising crime in New York has gripped the mayoral race. Eric Adams says he alone can fix it.But Adams, clearly frustrated by the criticism, reminded viewers that he had, in fact, testified about NYPD abuses in the court case that eventually led a federal judge to declare the department’s practice of the tactic unconstitutional. “This is an Anthony Fauci moment,” Adams said at one point, referring to the nation’s top infectious diseases specialist, the scientific community’s leading voice during the pandemic. “Imagine someone 20 years from now, someone would say, ‘Hey Anthony, you did nothing for Covid.’ That’s how I feel right now.”Yang, meanwhile, railed once more against the “defund the police” movement, saying, “We need to staff up in the precincts and in the gun violence suppression division.” Garcia — who has sought to occupy a middle ground on the issue — touted her gun buyback plan and declared that the city had “gone from a pandemic of Covid to an epidemic of gun violence.”To their left, Wiley, Stringer and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales all focused more on crime prevention plans, rooted in social services, and stepped-up oversight of the police. Who’s the progressive champion?With early voting in the primary less than two weeks away, progressive groups are finally beginning to rally around one candidate: Wiley. But their support has come late and, in many cases, as a reaction to an accusation of sexual harassment against Stringer, which he has denied, and internal strife in Morales’ campaign. Shortly before the debate, a former Morales senior adviser, Ifeoma Ike, announced that she had joined Wiley’s team. The left is split and searching for a path in topsy-turvy New York mayoral race The left is split and searching for a path in topsy-turvy New York mayoral race The left is split and searching for a path in topsy-turvy New York mayoral race Wiley, a day earlier, sought to fire up progressives with a sharply critical new ad focusing on police misconduct. It had the desired effect, prompting a torrent — or “freakout,” as her campaign described it — of anger from Republicans and two police union leaders. Though her own tenure leading the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s top police oversight agency, has come under criticism, Wiley on Wednesday night again promised stepped-up civilian control and oversight of the department and a diversion of some police resources from incidents involving the mentally ill.For his part, Stringer sought to portray himself as the best choice for liberals in a divided field by playing up his long record in the nitty-gritty of city politics. “There are other progressive candidates who don’t have the experience,” he said. “And there are other candidates with experience who aren’t progressive. I’m the only person running for mayor who has both.” Future of schools on the lineIf there was one clear point of consensus on the debate stage, it was that New York City schoolkids are not all right.The candidates offered different plans and jousted over the role of charter schools in a city that has traditionally been home to one of the most robust public education systems in the country. But all agreed that after more than a year of either “hybrid” or entirely remote learning, getting students safely back into classrooms is a top priority.For now, the plan is to resume full, in-person learning in the fall. The challenges associated with it, though, remain an open question. Stringer and Yang both stressed that their own children attend city schools, as they sought to empathize with other parents. Adams said he wanted to “upscale excellence” before recalling the disparities between schools in different neighborhoods, something he saw firsthand as a student growing up in Queens. Garcia argued that educators and administrators had a bigger task ahead of them than many realized, saying schools should provide “mental health support” to students after a difficult year away.”We do not know how their trauma will manifest itself,” she said.Yang seemed to agree. “There is,” he said, “a lot of damage to undo.”Garcia steps, carefully, into the spotlightThe New York Times- and New York Daily News-endorsed Garcia has enjoyed a recent jolt of excitement around her campaign, a moderate bid that stresses her wide range of experience in city government, from running the Sanitation Department to leading efforts to feed New Yorkers during the worst of the pandemic.During the debate, Garcia repeatedly cited those endorsements — the Times, in particular, has considerable sway with a chunk of city voters — and argued that her plans had the best chance of becoming reality.”I am the only person on this stage who will be able to deliver on every promise she makes,” Garcia said, adding that she had “the vision, the hustle and the experience to get the job done.”Yang, among others, has taken notice of Garcia’s rise. In his opening remarks he repeated a line from his newly pointed stump speech that included a reference to trash piling up on city streets — which could be interpreted as an arrow aimed at Garcia, the former sanitation chief.”We can’t expect the same people who have run our city into the ground these past years to then turn around and solve tomorrow’s problems,” Yang said, a shot directed as much at his more seasoned rivals as a way of touting his outsider status.But Garcia, though hesitant at times to jump into an often-fractious debate with tons of cross talk, projected confidence when it came to the driving force behind her campaign.”I invite anyone on this stage to talk about track records,” she said, “because I actually have one.”

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