Voters in Philadelphia have shown that a mayoral campaign between a black candidate and a white candidate need not degenerate into a nasty, no-holds-barred contest where race becomes the dominant issue. Exit polls in Tuesday's Democratic primary - where former City Manager W. Wilson Goode defeated former Mayor Frank Rizzo - indicated that large numbers of voters perceived the contest in terms of substantive issues, i.e., who would do the best job regarding city finances, transportation, housing.
That is not to deny that race was a factor. It was. But, as Mr. Goode observed after his victory, it was not ''the'' issue, as it largely was in Chicago last month where Congressman Harold Washington barely squeaked past a white Republican opponent in that city's general election. In the Chicago primary contest, it might be recalled, Mr. Washington won very few white votes. In Tuesday's Philadelphia primary, by contrast, Mr. Goode won in part by appealing to white voters, although, as expected, he snapped up black wards by large percentages.
Mr. Goode carried impressive credentials from 17 years of public service to the nation's fourth-largest city. A sharecropper's son, he is a graduate of the prestigious Wharton School and knows as much about Philadelphia's financial situation as anyone in that city. And, unlike Mr. Washington in Chicago, he has no clouded history of disbarment and unpaid income taxes.
Philadelphia has not had a Republican mayor since 1947. Will the race issue become more of a factor in the general election in November? One trusts that will not be the case. Mr. Goode's GOP opponent, financier John Egan, has indicated that he wants to wage a campaign based solely on issues.
The Philadelphia primary vote, like the Chicago election last month, underscores just how unpredictable the racial element is in the larger national political process. If Mr. Goode becomes mayor there will be blacks at the helm in four of the nation's six largest cities - including Tom Bradley in Los Angeles and Coleman Young in Detroit.
The national political parties will undoubtedly take careful note of the fact that blacks now are registering in unprecedented numbers in many communities. The political landscape is changing.