One went to Yale, the other to Harvard. One was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, the other in Manhattan. One would be the first woman to lead the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the other, the first Black person.
The two leading Democratic candidates for Manhattan district attorney, Tali Farhadian Weinstein and Alvin Bragg, have similar pedigrees, and one recent poll showed them effectively tied as the primary nears its conclusion on June 22.
But Ms. Farhadian Weinstein has given her campaign $8.2 million in recent weeks, multiplying her lead in a fund-raising battle she was already dominating and drawing the ire of rivals who say she is trying to buy the election. She has spent some of the money on televised attacks that other candidates, including several who were not directly targeted, have said are inappropriate.
The vitriol was on full display Thursday at the only in-person debate of the primary, as the eight candidates in the race lobbed attacks at one another while focusing much of their energy on Ms. Farhadian Weinstein.
One of her opponents, Dan Quart, warned the audience against being deceived by her polish.
“Ms. Weinstein’s measured tone should not conceal the true viciousness and lack of truthfulness in her attack,” Mr. Quart said at the debate, referring to an ad and a mailing that he called “disgraceful.”
Although there will be a Republican candidate on the ballot in November, whoever wins the primary is almost assured of victory given Manhattan’s overwhelmingly liberal electorate. He or she will take over an office that tries tens of thousands of cases a year and handles some of the most significant investigations in the United States, including a pending inquiry into President Donald J. Trump and his family business.
Ms. Farhadian Weinstein, who has been endorsed by Hillary Clinton and Eric H. Holder Jr., the former U.S. attorney general, has long been considered a leader in the race, thanks in part to the more than $4.5 million she has raised from other donors, many of them linked to Wall Street. She has offered a more moderate agenda than most of her competitors, emphasizing the importance of public safety and focusing on hate crimes, sex crimes and domestic violence.
But she has been put on the defensive in the race’s final days, after ProPublica reported that she had paid little in federal income tax in four of the six most recent years. She has also faced criticism over both a mailing and television advertisement in which she targeted Mr. Bragg and Mr. Quart in ways that they said were racist and preyed on voters’ fears.
At the debate, Ms. Farhadian Weinstein’s rivals challenged her on both the tax issue and the ad starting in the opening minutes.
In the TV ad, an anonymous woman who identifies herself as a survivor of domestic abuse says that Mr. Bragg and Mr. Quart “would put women and families at risk of further abuse.” The ad and the mailing use stark imagery to suggest Mr. Bragg is a threat to women, a longstanding racist trope about Black men. (The ad and mailing also cast Mr. Quart in a sinister light.)
“Two million dollars she put in to besmirch my reputation, and Alvin’s as well,” Mr. Quart said.
Mr. Bragg said Ms. Farhadian Weinstein’s material had racist overtones in the country’s worst traditions.
In response, Ms. Farhadian Weinstein said her criticisms of her two opponents were substantive. She said the same thing in an interview earlier in the day, adding that she did not think the ad was racist.
“I put a spotlight on the blind spots of the two men in the race when it comes to violence against women,” she said in the interview.
Asked about arguments that she is trying to buy the race, she said, “I’m trying to get my message out.”
Ms. Farhadian Weinstein’s mailing highlighted incidents after episodes in which both parties file complaints against each other. She and others argue that when prosecutors dismiss such complaints without an investigation, even when both parties agree to the dismissal, it can remain unclear who was the true victim of the violence, and cycles of abuse can continue unchecked.
Other candidates, including Mr. Quart, argue that when such complaints are left to linger even when both parties agree they should be dismissed, the legal system prolongs government intervention in potentially harmful ways for those who are trying to move on with their lives.
Mr. Bragg, a former deputy attorney general in New York, has sought to find a balance in his campaign between emphasizing public safety and civil rights. He said in an interview on Wednesday that the ad and mailing were a response to the momentum of his campaign.
“And it’s the worst kind of response,” he said. “The kind of response that is repugnant, abhorrent and has no place in politics and certainly not the Manhattan district attorney’s race.”
Another candidate, Liz Crotty, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who has been endorsed by several police unions, criticized Ms. Farhadian Weinstein sharply in the debate and in an interview beforehand.
“It maligns the fathers of two young women” — Mr. Bragg and Mr. Quart — “accusing them of being friendly to rapists,” Ms. Crotty said of the mailing at the debate. “This is not what the district attorney’s office is about.”
Lucy Lang, another former prosecutor who has trailed only Ms. Farhadian Weinstein and Mr. Bragg in fund-raising and polls, said she agreed with some of the substantive points that Ms. Farhadian Weinstein had made but thought the way the message was delivered was inappropriate.
“I think that the way she is conducting her campaign proves that she doesn’t have the values that we need at the district attorney’s office,” Ms. Lang said.
Mr. Bragg also took issue with a quotation used in the ad and mailing that says he would be “unfair to rape victims,” which comes from The New York Daily News’s endorsement of Ms. Farhadian Weinstein.
The passage in question refers to Mr. Bragg’s intention to reopen cases handled by Linda Fairstein, the lead prosecutor in the Central Park Five case. His supporters say the position is consistent with his pursuit of justice for the wrongfully accused.
Peter Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project who has endorsed Mr. Bragg, said Ms. Farhadian Weinstein’s criticism of her competitor on the issue was puzzling, given that she has also stressed the need to overturn wrongful convictions.
But Roberta A. Kaplan, a founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and a supporter of Ms. Farhadian Weinstein, said Ms. Farhadian Weinstein’s agenda on sex crimes could be trusted in part because she is a woman.
“I hate to play the gender card but here I think it is important to play the gender card,” Ms. Kaplan said. “There is a greater chance that those reforms will succeed if they are being implemented and run by a woman.”
Along with Ms. Crotty, Ms. Lang, and another former prosecutor, Diana Florence, three candidates with no prosecutorial experience — Mr. Quart, Tahanie Aboushi and Eliza Orlins — are competing for voters’ support.
The knottiness and specificity of the debate on domestic violence is typical of the race, in which there are strong disagreements between the eight Democratic candidates even as most say they would make significant changes at the district attorney’s office.
In the early months of this year, the candidates for the most part focused on those changes, offering policies that they said would make the office less racist and more just, and criticizing the tenure of the current officeholder, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who announced in March that he would not seek re-election.
But as gun violence in New York City rose and Ms. Farhadian Weinstein emerged as a leader in the race, conversation at candidate forums and on the campaign trail has focused on public safety, and on everything that other candidates and their surrogates say is troubling about her campaign.