New York's Democrats take aim at Bloomberg

Democrats picked a nominee this week, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be tough to beat.

In the end, just shy turned out to be just enough.

Despite the fact that New York City's Democrats failed to decisively pick a candidate in this week's primary, the Democratic favorite, former Bronx borough president Fernando "Freddie" Ferrer is expected to be the party's standard bearer after all to take on billionaire Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg in November's general election.

The mild-mannered Mr. Ferrer failed to win the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

But runner-up Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn-born congressman - who staged a surprise come-from-behind with an upstart, wisecracking assault on the Democratic status quo - conceded Wednesday in a bow to party unity.

That will end the prospects of a potentially divisive runoff as well as a week of Democratic paralysis, while the estimated 20,000 absentee ballots were counted. Now, Mr. Ferrer can immediately take on the increasingly popular Democrat-turned-Republican Mayor Bloomberg.

That is very good news for the Democrats, who despite their 5-to-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration, haven't controlled City Hall for more than a decade, in part because of past divisive and expensive internecine contests.

"Runoffs can be 'tsouris' - that spells trouble in Yiddish. This saves them from a punch-in-the-nose runoff," says pollster Mickey Carroll of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "[Now these guys won't be] at each other's throats ... while Bloomberg can watch from the sidelines."

In September 2001, with ground zero still filling the air with acrid smoke, Ferrer lost a bitter, racially tainted runoff to Public Advocate Mark Green. That's credited in part with helping Bloomberg win, because many angry blacks and Hispanics refused to support Green - the Democratic standard-bearer.

That lesson was not lost on this year's batch of Democratic primary wannabes. In general, they were polite and well-mannered during debates, determined not to give the Bloomberg camp any extra ammunition.

Some analysts contend that Mr. Weiner's expected decision to concede is a testament to the Democrats' determination to take back City Hall.

But Ferrer still faces a daunting, uphill battle against Bloomberg, whose popularity has been steadily increasing.

A recent poll shows that two-thirds of New Yorkers approve of the job he's been doing.

And Bloomberg's campaign, which started an upbeat multimillion-dollar advertising blitz in the spring, shows no sign of giving up its relentless pace and spending.

"They haven't given any Democrats any oxygen at all," says Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College of the City University of New York. "It's total war: it's like Grant in the Civil War - you attack them at all points and at all times."

Add to that the fact that the once highly unpopular billionaire - once chided as rich and out of touch, particularly with working people in the outer boroughs - is in the midst of a second honeymoon, says Mr. Carroll.

And the challenge for Ferrer is formidable.

That was evident in Democratic turnout in Tuesday's primary. It was a sparse 15 percent - the second-lowest in recent memory - a testament to how many "Bloomberg Democrats" just stayed home.

"The guy has a record you can run on and win on, he's got opponents who've not shown they can take him on yet, and he's got $5 billion," says Professor Muzzio. "Excuse me, I wanna be Mike Bloomberg."

But no one is writing Ferrer off completely yet. "It's a Democratic town, remember that," says Carroll. "Things happen."

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