It was a great show at Sunday’s debate at DePaul University among Democratic candidates for the open seat in the Fifth Congressional District.

So many people showed up–at least 700–that the room filled up and latecomers were forced to listen to the debate over a radio set up in the hallway.

Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet did a good job of keeping the forum moving, not an easy task with eleven candidates eager to talk. They covered a range of issues, from President Obama’s stimulus bill to Middle East policies. I thought Jan Donatelli, Tom Geoghegan, and John Fritchey did well, and I was happy to hear all the candidates come out against Mayor Daley’s plan to privatize Midway Airport. It would have been nice if any of them–particularly Fritchey and his state House colleague Sara Feigenholtz–had criticized the deal before the City Council rubber stamped it. But you know how it goes in Chicago politics: most folks will only criticize the mayor’s policies if he’s not in the room.

The great mystery Sunday was 40th Ward alderman Patrick O’Connor–as in, where was he? Not at the forum, even though he’d filed nominating petitions to run in the race. Suzanne Elder, who helped organize the forum, said she’d called O’Connor at least three times and e-mailed him another three times. He never responded.

His no-show inspired a couple of theories among folks at the forum. One is that he’s dropping out of the race because he didn’t get Mayor Daley’s support, since there’s no way he can win without the mayor’s support. The other is that Mayor Daley put him in the race to siphon votes from Mike Quigley and win the election for Fritchey, who has the support of the district’s four big Machine aldermen: Richard Mell, William Banks, Eugene Schulter, and Patrick Levar. The theory is that one Irish name will take votes from another Irish name. Hey, the pols who run this city really do think you’re stupid, and some of us are wondering if they’re right after remembering that voters in the Fifth District elected Rod Blagojevich to Congress on three occasions.

But O’Connor told me the theories about him are wrong: he says he’s not dropping out and he’s not a front for Fritchey. In fact, he argues that he’s a better fit for the job than Fritchey and will end up whooping him before it’s done.

O’Connor says he had better ways to use his time Sunday than spend two hours on stage with all the other wannabes. “I was busy–I stopped by parishes, larger parties, restaurants, and sports bars,” he said. “I got to meet three times as many people by making other appearances. The more people I meet the better off I am.”

Plus, by not showing up, he’s getting more attention than if he did. “Not that I’m a fox or anything, but my name is mentioned three times in the stories the [Trib and Sun-Times] wrote about the forum, and a lot of the other guys who were at the forum are not mentioned at all.”

And now I’m writing about him.

So did he make the right decision? Well, he might have alienated more people than he won over at all those Super Bowl parties–the debate was aired on the radio, so presumably there were more people paying attention than just the ones who showed up at DePaul. And he could have gone to the other parties and the forum, which only ran from one to three.

For what it’s worth, Quigley thinks O’Connor came off as a wuss who chickening out of the forum. “I think it was a mistake,” he says. “It’s disrespectful not to respond to the public’s questions. This is an attempt by the public and the media to probe how you will handle issues. I think you owe it to them hear your views.”