NEW YORK (AP) — New York City's public advocate held a commanding lead in the Democratic primary election for mayor, hovering near the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff in the race to choose a successor to billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Former Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairman Joe Lhota easily won the Republican nomination in Tuesday's primary. The night also marked the unceremonious end to the bid by a City Council Speaker Christine Quinn trying to become the first female and openly gay mayor, and to the political comebacks of scandal-scarred candidates Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has about 40.02 percent of the total vote. He needs to stay above 40 percent in order to avoid triggering an automatic Oct. 1 runoff. If he cannot, he will face former city Comptroller Bill Thompson, who has 26 percent.
Quinn was third at 15 percent, followed by current city Comptroller John Liu at 7 percent and Weiner at 5 percent. Elections officials are expected to count an additional 30,000 or more votes in coming days as absentee ballots arrive by mail and paperwork comes in from voters who had problems at the polls. A final result may not be known for 10 days.
The winner of the mayor's race in November will assume the helm of the nation's largest city which has been led for 12 years by Bloomberg. The election comes at a critical juncture as the city experiences shrinking crime rates yet widening income inequality, and as the nearly completed One World Trade Center building symbolizes a new era after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We are better as a city when we make sure that everyone has a shot," de Blasio told his raucous Brooklyn victory party, emphasizing his campaign theme of combatting income inequality. "We begin tonight."
With de Blasio so close to 40 percent, Democratic leaders may pressure Thompson to drop out in the name of party unity. But Thompson made it clear Tuesday that he wanted to contest the runoff.
"Three more weeks! Three more weeks!" chanted Thompson, the party's 2009 nominee, referring to the campaign sprint before the potential runoff. "This is far from over."
Exit polling shows that de Blasio would handily defeat Thompson in a runoff, 52 to 34 percent, with 9 percent saying they'd stay home.
De Blasio's rise in the race to succeed Bloomberg was as sudden as it was unexpected.
Not even two months ago, he was an afterthought in the campaign but surged in part thanks to an ad blitz that centered on his interracial family, his headline-grabbing arrest while protesting the possible closure of a Brooklyn hospital and the defection of Weiner's former supporters in the wake of another sexting scandal.
The exit polling showed the appeal of de Blasio, the city's elected public advocate, to be broad-based: He was ahead in all five boroughs; was ahead of Quinn, the lone woman in the race, with female voters; and ahead of Thompson, the only African-American candidate, with black voters. The voter interviews were conducted by Edison Media Research for The Associated Press and other news organizations.
If no candidate surpasses 40 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to an Oct. 1 runoff.
The winner of any runoff contest would face Lhota in the Nov. 5 general election. Lhota, the ex-transit authority chairman and former deputy mayor to Rudolph Giuliani, defeated billionaire grocery magnate John Catsimatidis for the Republican nomination. Both Republican candidates largely pledged to follow Bloomberg's lead, focusing on maintaining the city's record low crime rates.
In the closely watched race for New York City comptroller, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer defeated ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was seeking a political comeback after resigning New York's governor's office in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal.
Bloomberg, the businessman Republican-turned-independent, is completing his third term. While the city's registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1, the Republican Party's recent success in mayoral elections has been largely attributed to a crime epidemic, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks or other extraordinary circumstances.
Nearly three-quarters of Democratic primary voters said the next mayor ought to move away from Bloomberg policies, according to the exit polls.
De Blasio, 52, has fashioned himself as the cleanest break from the Bloomberg years, proposing to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten and change city police practices he says discriminate against minorities.
De Blasio, who worked in Bill Clinton's White House and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign before being elected to the city council and then public advocate, became the front-runner in the race's final weeks.
"I liked what he said about the economic inequality in the city," said Norma Vavolizza, 65, who lives in the Bronx and works in marketing. "I think it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed."
Quinn was the front-runner for much of the year, boasting the biggest campaign war chest and strong establishment backing. But she was dogged by her support to change term limits to let Bloomberg run again in 2009, a decision unpopular with liberals who make up the bulk of Democratic primary voters.
Weiner surprisingly entered the race in May after being in political exile since resigning from Congress in 2011 upon admitting to lewd online exchanges with women who were not his wife.
His candidacy sparked curiosity and popular interest, and he immediately shot to the top of the polls. But support collapsed almost as quickly when he revealed in July that he continued the online behavior even after his resignation from federal office.
Turnout appeared light, but the city's complaint line received several thousand voting-related calls. Many reported jams and breakdowns in the antiquated lever machines, which were hauled out of retirement to replace much-maligned electronic devices.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press video journalist Ted Shaffrey and Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald, David B. Caruso, Nick Divito, Larry Neumeister and Jake Pearson.
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