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In a parallel universe, where serial candidate Christopher Young's antics are simply an ingenious bit of performance art — and not evidence of a worrisome and often obnoxious instability — his display at the recent Providence mayoral debate might qualify as a sort of capstone on a brilliant career.

After an evening of entertaining remarks — some purposefully funny, perhaps, and others not — Young used his closing statement to propose marriage, on live television, to his girlfriend Kara Russo.

Russo, a long-shot candidate for lieutenant governor, leapt to her feet with an enthusiastic "yes," only to hear a few minutes later from Young — still on the stage and before the cameras — that presentation of the engagement ring sitting on his podium is conditional on his winning the mayor's office.

That wedding day could be a ways off.

But if Young's bizarre proposal took center stage, he was hardly the only one playing the role of suitor that night. With Providence Mayor David Cicilline stepping down to run for Congress, a city staring down severe financial problems, high unemployment, and a struggling school system is looking for a new leader.

And in the home stretch of primary season, three Democrats — lawyer Angel Taveras, State Representative Steven Costantino, and City Councilman John Lombardi — are making the most serious appeals to an electorate finally paying some attention.

The conventional wisdom at the outset of the campaign had Taveras replicating the coalition that vaulted Cicilline to the mayoralty in 2002 — winning well-to-do, liberal East Siders and a heavily Latino South Side while Costantino and Lombardi split the more traditional, white ethnic vote.

A lack of public polling makes it difficult to gauge whether that scenario is playing out. But the consensus among political observers is that the contest is a close one. Costantino has poured substantial resources of his own into a well-tuned advertising campaign and Lombardi has surprised with a recent surge in fundraising.

The apparent tightness of the race raised the stakes for the debate, sponsored by WPRI-TV and moderated by the station's investigative reporter Tim White.

Taveras, who has never held elective office and is vying to become the city's first Latino mayor, made a pointed attempt to cast himself as the outsider. "We need a new voice," he said. "We cannot afford career politicians who got us to where we are today."

It is an argument that should in theory resonate in this year of voter discontent. Indeed, Lombardi and Costantino faced difficult questions during the debate about how they could be expected to lead the city out of its financial morass given the perilous condition of the city and state budgets they have helped to oversee.

But those questions lose some of their potency in a low-turnout election driven by the most fervent supporters of each candidate. And observers, who once predicted a relatively robust turnout, have revised their estimates down.

Patrick Lynch's decision to drop out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary and leave the field to Frank Caprio alone means a potentially big-draw race is no longer on the ballot.

But more broadly, insiders say the much-ballyhooed anger animating the electorate — however real — may manifest itself less in a throw-the-bums-out surge of new voters than in a stay-away-from-the-polls disdain for the process.

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