In a week, New Yorkers will be asked to make a crucial decision about their city's future: who will replace the now towering Rudolph Giuliani. But with ground zero still smoldering, fear of anthrax lacing the air, and the World Series at stake, the contest has turned into a sidebar of sorts.
"Nobody's paying attention when they should be paying a lot, because this election will have a major impact on people's lives," says Doug Muzzio, a political analyst at Baruch College at the City University of New York. "But it's just too difficult with all of these distractions."
Still, Democrat Mark Green and Republican Mike Bloomberg are stumping hard to grab the spotlight in what is without doubt the most unusual campaign in the city's history. The contest was truncated first by the Sept. 11 attack, which interrupted thousands of voters mid-lever and delayed the primary election by a month. Then, a racially charged dispute with a Democratic rival put off the naming of Mr. Green as the official Democratic nominee by a week.
And all that has taken place in the looming shadow of the mayor. "It's not unusual for candidates to have to close a stature gap," says New York pollster Lee Miringoff. "But with Rudy, the bar was raised so high with what's going on that the usual 'I have what it takes to get the job done' campaign pitter-patter doesn't quite seem to do it. These guys just haven't connected yet."
Nonetheless, both Green and Mr. Bloomberg are out pumping themselves up as the man most capable of rebuilding New York while facing billion-dollar deficits.
Bloomberg touts his business acumen and success, while deriding Green's lack of private-sector experience. Green, the city's public advocate, hammers at Bloomberg's status as a political novice.
So far, Green has the edge by as much as 16 points in a recent poll. And he's settled into a confident front-runner's position. He spent the past week collecting union endorsements and refusing to even acknowledge what he calls his "inexperienced competitor's attacks."
"I don't really have to respond to him," Green said, after a stroll through Union Square with the head of one of city's largest unions. "Today I am focused on the three large goals of rebuilding the economy, enhancing security, and educating our children."
Bloomberg, who has spent $41 million to Green's $9 million so far, has struggled to find his footing and overcome the perception that he can't win.
Last week, the state's popular, conservative governor, George Pataki, endorsed him as the "strong leader" that was needed in City Hall. But then, Bloomberg touted his own liberal credentials. The governor stood by, a bit taken aback.
Over the weekend, Mr. Giuliani finally gave Bloomberg the coveted nod he's been waiting for. Yet the mayor, who's still preoccupied with fallout from Sept. 11, showed up more than an hour late and gave a low-key endorsement.
Both the governor and the mayor have declined to criticize or attack Green, which has made it more difficult for Bloomberg. But this is part of the new dynamic created by the terrorist attacks: Political assaults now appear almost unseemly. In fact, analysts say that Bloomberg's own negative attacks on Green as inexperienced and too liberal haven't struck a chord.
Nonetheless, while he still trails, Bloomberg has come up almost from nowhere. A year ago, when talk first circulated about his run for mayor, he was
registering in the single digits. With Giuliani now behind him, he could pick up momentum.
"There are people who think he would be just right because of his business background," says Mickey Blum, an independent pollster in New York. "But there are others who think he'd be just awful because of his lack of political experience."
Even before Sept. 11, the race to replace Mr. Giuliani was lackluster at best. With four experienced but not particularly charismatic politicians vying for the Democratic nod, the press focused more on Giuliani's divorce than the primary. And why not? All four seemed to agree on just about everything, except who should be the next mayor.
The entrance of Democrat-turned-Republican Bloomberg did grab the city's attention for a short spell. He ran against the perennial Republican candidate Herman Badillo, who had few resources and little to no support from the GOP establishment.
But Bloomberg's near ubiquitous presence in TV spots and on mail leaflets soon became just another part of the city's daily background din. The little press he got came with what the media dubbed his "gaffes" - from endorsing the idea of school prayer to suggesting that sanitation workers had more dangerous jobs than police and firefighters.
Then came primary day: Sept. 11. The mayor's compassionate and perfectly pitched response fueled a movement to do away with the election and keep him on. But as the initial shock wore off, the city's underlying democratic - with a small "d" - sentiments came back to the fore.
With the election now just a week off, analysts believe the gap between Green and Bloomberg will narrow. And more people will start paying attention.
"The fact is you're electing someone to run the biggest city in the country in a particularly difficult time - and the standard problems don't go away," says New York political analyst and pollster Maurice Carroll. "The fact that you have to rebuild lower Manhattan doesn't mean you can ignore the schools."