NEW YORK - Former congressman Anthony Weiner fell to fourth among Democratic candidates in the city's latest mayoral race poll on Tuesday but was the center of attention in a heated debate.
Weiner used his opening remarks in the televised debate, held less than a month before a wide-open primary vote, to again apologize for his sexting scandal, which, when it re-emerged last month, knocked him from his perch atop the Democratic pack.
"I have made mistakes," he said. "They have embarrassed myself and hurt my family."
But Weiner's contrite stance ended soon thereafter, as he turned combative while trading barbs with his rivals, including the race's new front-runner, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio; the party's 2009 nominee, ex-comptroller Bill Thompson; and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
The night's most searing exchange came when Weiner criticized Quinn's assistance in overturning city term limits in 2009 to give independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg another four years in office.
"I apologized for my personal behavior," Weiner said. "The speaker refuses to apologize for overturning the will of the people."
Quinn, who frequently allies herself with Bloomberg, did what she rarely does on the campaign trail and explicitly brought up Weiner's admission that he traded illicit online messages with women even after he resigned from Congress in 2011 for similar behavior.
"No New Yorker should be lectured by Anthony Weiner," she said. "Neither me nor anybody else on this stage ... needs to be lectured by Anthony Weiner about what we need to apologize for."
Weiner, who's married, remained a lightning rod throughout the hour-long debate.
De Blasio, who moved to first in a poll released hours before the debate, called for Weiner to drop out of the race. Thompson chided Weiner for not challenging Bloomberg in 2009. And Quinn mocked his congressional record.
The combative exchanges typified the hostile atmosphere on stage among the five candidates, who also included Comptroller John Liu, as the race to replace Bloomberg entered its final, frantic weeks.
If no candidate reaches 40 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two advance to a run-off three weeks later. De Blasio tops the field at 30 percent, followed by Quinn at 24, Thompson at 22, Weiner at 10 and Liu at 6.
With a crowded field making a run-off seemingly inevitable, the candidates jockeyed to land memorable attacks during the debate, the first shown on broadcast TV.
Quinn, who has been first or second in every poll taken this year, was a frequent target. Her rivals repeatedly hit her not just on the elimination of term limits but for her hopes to retain police Commissioner Ray Kelly even after a judge this week ordered a federal monitor oversee the police department's stop-and-frisk policy.
Thompson called Kelly "the face of an abusive policy." And Liu said the program, which critics believe unfairly targets blacks and Latinos, "was not just unconstitutional but was unconscionable."
Kelly and Bloomberg credit the policy for driving down crime. Quinn, who drew constant contrasts between her legislative records and her rivals' thin resumes, said she "would be lucky" to keep Kelly as head of the New York Police Department but said she didn't agree with his steadfast defense of stop-and-frisk.
De Blasio, who was an afterthought in the race for much of the summer, repeatedly grabbed the mantle of the campaign's "progressive choice." And, in one of the debate's few light moments, he revealed that he went to the same Massachusetts high school as former basketball star Patrick Ewing but "only one of them made the NBA."