By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - At a recent campaign stop on New York's Upper West Side, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's 16-year-old son, Dante, was stealing the show - and not for the first time.
A few weeks ago, Dante, who is biracial and sports a tall Afro, starred in a campaign advertisement about de Blasio's opposition to stop and frisk, a police tactic that overwhelmingly targets young, black men.
The spot made Dante a minor celebrity and is credited with helping to catapult de Blasio into the lead among Democrats running for mayor of America's largest city.
Ahead of the September 10 Democratic primary, a Quinnipiac poll this week had him topping the other candidates with 43 percent support from likely Democratic voters, with two rivals trailing badly with about 20 percent each.
"I'm glad I can help my dad any way that I can," Dante told reporters as fans waited with camera phones for a chance to pose with him this week at a campaign event on the Upper West Side near Central Park. Earlier that day, Reverend Al Sharpton, New York's most prominent civil rights leader, said Dante had "the most famous Afro" in New York City.
In an interview published on Saturday on the website of New York Magazine, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he thought de Blasio was waging a "class warfare and racist" campaign because of the prominent role played by the candidate's mixed-race family.
At an event in Brooklyn, de Blasio responded that it is "silly season" in the mayoral race, and returned to his signature line in the campaign.
"We are living in a tale of two cities, and ignoring it isn't going to move us forward," de Blasio told attendees. He cited an analysis published in April that found 46 percent of New Yorkers were living in or near poverty.
De Blasio has soared past the race's longtime front-runner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a strong ally of Bloomberg who would be the city's first female and openly gay mayor.
De Blasio has also surpassed former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who if elected would be the second black mayor in the city of 8 million residents. The first, David Dinkins, served for one term in the early 1990s.
With front-runner status has come criticism for de Blasio, who stands 6-foot-5-inches tall. Quinn and Thompson have leveled a barrage of attacks, saying de Blasio's record of accomplishment is thin and that he is better at complaining about the status quo than enacting change.
"You don't want a mayor who is a pushover," Quinn said at a recent debate. De Blasio "will say anything depending on whose vote he is trying to get," she said.
As for the issue de Blasio talks about most often, raising taxes on the city's highest earners to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, detractors call it unrealistic. Such a tax hike would require state approval, and lawmakers in Albany, the state capital, are unlikely to agree.
De Blasio has responded by saying that support for the idea from city voters will help force Albany's hand, and that he is the only candidate to offer big and bold ideas to improve the lives of New Yorkers.
Political observers say de Blasio has done a better job articulating a clear platform than his Democratic rivals.
Asked why they support him, his fans readily tick off his banner ideas: addressing economic disparity he calls the "tale of two cities," the pre-school promise, reforming stop and frisk and preventing the shuttering of more hospitals.
Bruce Berg, a professor of political science at Fordham University, says de Blasio has been shrewd in slowly building up his liberal credentials, and has become the chief beneficiary of a drop in popularity for former congressman Anthony Weiner, who was the race's leading liberal until he became embroiled in a lewd-picture scandal.
"Liberal voters who were backing Weiner are backing de Blasio," said Berg. "And de Blasio appears to be the candidate who is peaking at the right time."
In July, de Blasio was arrested during a rally in support of Long Island Community Hospital - one of six hospitals in the borough of Brooklyn that face the threat of closure. Twelve city hospitals have closed during the last 12 years and de Blasio has made it a major campaign issue.
"My campaign has been about making changes," de Blasio said following another rally at the hospital on Friday. "It's been about getting away from the status quo."
New York Democrats appear to be responding not just to de Blasio's liberal, anti-Bloomberg message, but to his family, including his wife, Chirlane McCray.
"I like that his wife is African American," said Shandera Jamison, a 26-year-old municipal worker, at an event in Harlem.
De Blasio, 52, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and moved to New York to attend New York University and later Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.
He worked briefly in the Clinton White House in the 1990s and later ran Hillary Clinton's successful 2000 U.S. Senate campaign. A year later, he was elected to the city council.
Four years ago, when Bloomberg announced he would seek a change in the city's term-limits law to run for a third term - and won the critical support of Quinn - de Blasio was one of the most visible opponents.
That fight, which Bloomberg won, elevated de Blasio's profile and helped position him to run for public advocate - a small office with a $2 million budget that nonetheless offers ambitious politicians a high-profile pulpit.
De Blasio cast himself as a liberal counterweight to Quinn on issues like paid sick leave and stop and frisk.
For the moment at least, de Blasio is riding high.
At one event, he stood with one arm draped around his wife and the other around his daughter, Chiara, cracking jokes and making light of his family's support.
"The family that campaigns together, stays together," he said as his daughter happily rolled her eyes.
(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Eric Walsh)