THE DEMOCRATIC race for the 13th congressional seat has become so combative in recent weeks that candidates now use opening statements at debates to attack their primary election foes.

But state Rep. Brendan Boyle went a step further yesterday, attacking former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies before a debate even started in Northeast Philly's 56th Ward. Boyle announced a last-minute boycott, complaining that ward leader John Sabatina endorsed Margolies and is working for her campaign.

Margolies returned fire at the debate, reading scripted jibes in her opening remarks about Boyle and the other two Democrats in the race, state Sen. Daylin Leach and Dr. Valerie Arkoosh.

Margolies called Boyle "multiple-choice" on the issue of abortion since he voted for regulations opposed by abortion-rights groups. She bashed Leach for not living in the district. And she called a campaign mailer from Arkoosh about Social Security "intellectually dishonest."

Leach struck back quickly at Margolies, noting that she reads her attacks "word-for-word" from notes. He also noted that he currently lives "about 200 yards" from the 13th District's borders.

Candidates for Congress can move into a district after they win that seat. The 13th District is split, half in Northeast Philly and half in Montgomery County.

Boyle is the only city candidate in the May 20 primary election. Margolies, Leach and Arkoosh live in Montgomery County.

Sixty percent of the district's voters are Democrats, 28 percent are Republicans and 12 percent are registered independents.

Arkoosh, who also knocked Boyle's position on abortion rights during the debate, noted that Margolies sponsored legislation during her one term in the 13th District seat from 1993 to 1995 to raise the retirement age to 70. That legislation, which did not pass in the U.S. House, was the subject of the campaign mailer Margolies complained about.

Margolies noted that she has changed her position and opposes raising the retirement age.

Arkoosh, unlike her three primary opponents, has never held public office. She touted that as a strength for her campaign, saying: "I would like to point out that Congress is full of career politicians and I don't think they're getting a lot done down there."

Leach turned that back on Arkoosh with cutting humor about her work in anesthesiology.

"When I go into an operating room, I don't want a career anesthesiologist," Leach joked, drawing laughter from the crowd. "I want someone who dabbles in it from time to time."