(Wall Street Journal Sept. 2, 2011) It took only two words to get the crowd in Manhattan Beach roaring.

Tea Party.

As soon as Democrat David Weprin uttered the words, supporters for his opponent, Republican Bob Turner, erupted into a chorus of boos that drowned out the applause from Mr. Weprin's supporters.

“My opponent is identified with the Tea Party element of the Republican Party that clearly has held our country hostage,” said Mr. Weprin, a state assemblyman, at a candidate's forum on Wednesday night.

“Disgrace!” yelled one man.

“Everybody needs to calm down,” pleaded moderator Judith Baron, whose earlier plea for the audience to “not yell and not scream and to make this a dignified event” apparently fell on deaf ears.

It only devolved from there. (“Shut up, I can't hear him talk! I shut up when your fool was talking,” yelled a woman to Mr. Turner's supporters.)

Not that the Manhattan Beach Community Group expected anything less. They made sure to have a police presence just in case things got too unruly. (Fortunately, they did not.)

The race for the Ninth Congressional District seat vacated by Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned amid a sexting scandal, was supposed to be a snoozer. After all, how much more drama could the district take?

The political script had the Democratic Party's anointed candidate sweeping to victory and serving the remaining 16 months of his predecessor's term, and that would be that.

Boy, has that been rewritten.

The race has turned into a national referendum on politics, with the candidates sparring over topics that are seemingly completely irrelevant, considering that whoever is elected will be the House's most junior member and have little sway over the national debate.

Mr. Weprin consistently links his opponent to the Tea Party, even though Mr. Turner's campaign says he has no formal Tea Party support. Mr. Turner, in turn, consistently links Mr. Weprin to President Barack Obama, whom some consider a liability due to low approval ratings.

“This election is going to have a profound influence in the next 15 months on national policies,” said Mr. Turner, a former cable television executive, in his closing comment at Wednesday's forum. “And I can tell you simply that I think this country is heading so far in the wrong direction that a win here from a Republican in a very Democratic district will echo the dissatisfaction” in the country.

Mr. Turner—who captured 40% of the vote in a run against Mr. Weiner last year—has gained a surprising amount of traction in an oddly configured district that stretches from Forest Hills in Queens to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn. A Siena College poll showed Messrs. Turner and Weprin as little as six percentage points apart. And the Turner campaign commissioned a poll of 300 voters on Wednesday night showing the race is a dead heat. According to a spokesman for Mr. Turner who shared a memo from the pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, each candidate captured 42 % of the vote, with a margin of error of 5.7 percentage points.

Although Democrats have a 3-to-1 advantage in registered voters, the district has a considerable conservative element, particularly the significant Orthodox Jewish population, which tends to turn out to vote.

With the Sept. 13 election less than two weeks away, the race has taken several surprising turns and generated more interest than usual for a special election in a district that is expected to be redrawn next year.

At Wednesday's forum, a New York Times editorial endorsing Mr. Weprin was waved by a woman who interrupted Mr. Turner's closing comments.

Other attendees leafed through the pages of the Jewish Voice, which interestingly endorsed Mr. Turner, a Catholic, over Mr. Weprin, who is an Orthodox Jew. The editorial cited Mr. Weprin's support for same-sex marriage and a belief that Mr. Turner would be more likely to challenge the president's stance on Israel (even though both candidates agree to disagree with the president on that topic).

It was Mr. Weprin who more often took the offensive at the forum, repeatedly accusing his opponent of wanting to slash federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare and flip-flopping his stances on payroll taxes and a law to pay medical expenses for people—including volunteers—injured while on duty after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (Mr. Turner's campaign refutes these claims).

Mr. Weprin may have no choice but to attack. He's has had a tough week. The longtime politician flubbed a question from the New York Daily News, saying the national debt was $4 trillion, rather than $14 trillion (The paper subsequently endorsed Mr. Turner.)

Then on Monday he pulled out of debate organized by a civic group in Queens at the last minute, citing logistical difficulties because of Hurricane Irene.

Rule No. 1 in Queens politics: Do not anger the Juniper Park Civic Association.

One of the city's most powerful and organized civic groups, the association publishes a quarterly, 80-page magazine that goes out to some 10,000 people. After Mr. Weiner angered the group at one point, it featured him on the cover as Pinocchio.

Then there was the headline for an article on its website shortly after Mr. Weprin pulled out of the debate: “Weprin to Middle Village, Maspeth, Glendale & Ridgewood—DROP DEAD!”

The group's president, Robert Holden, said Mr. Weprin “made a huge mistake. He sort of made the [election] decision easier for many of us. He should know us by now. We're a very tough group. We go after both parties.”

For the record, I am a constituent in the district, and neither candidate is spending any time on my main issues of concern: the daily peril of crossing Queens Boulevard, aka the Boulevard of Death; bringing a farmer's market to the 'hood (we need fruits and veggies!); and prettying up the playgrounds.

Constituents care about potholes and park upgrades. Most couldn't care less about what these candidates are focusing on, such as some Islamic community center that remains more imaginary than real. And that is precisely why one Mr. Weiner to this day remains very popular in the district.

The Juniper Park Civic Association may be an exception, but a common lament among voters in the district is that they wish they still had Mr. Weiner in office.

Indeed, Ira Zalcman, head of the Manhattan Beach group that hosted Wednesday's event, had this to say: “Anthony was like family. We just knew we were getting screwed when we lost him, I knew if he resigned we were going to suffer for it. I'm not condoning his behavior at all. We lost a big voice for Manhattan Beach and South Brooklyn.”

Both campaigns have been devoid of substance, said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College.

“The constituents in that district were better off with Anthony Weiner,” he said. “Essentially they are arguing about non sequiturs.”

He added: “The level of public discourse is almost like a limbo discussion, like how low can you go.”

So it was almost refreshing when Ms. Baron, the moderator, threw in some non sequiturs of her own.

Favorite movie?

Mr. Turner: “Casablanca.”

Mr. Weprin: “Gone with the Wind.”

Now who could argue with that?

Write to Sumathi Reddy at sumathi.reddy@wsj.com