The District Council 37 union hall was rocking, people literally dancing in the aisles, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally arrived at its mayoral forum.
The raucous, predominantly Democratic crowd greeted their billionaire Republican leader with a mix of cheers and jeers, a reception that is key to understanding the challenges he faces as he attempts to win a second term in this city that he likes to call "the world's second home."
These are city workers - investigators, engineers, typists, and hospital custodians - who represent New York's broad working and middle classes. Their support, or at least that of enough of them, will be crucial in determining if Mr. Bloomberg can overcome what polls show is his biggest problem: his image as a rich, distant manager who doesn't care about people like them - those who sometimes have a hard time making ends meet.
While the mayor has made the recovery of the city after 9/11 and his education reforms the keys to his reelection bid, those issues may not turn out to be the determining factors.
"What will matter is whether people like him and his governing style, whether they think he's competent, and whether overall they're satisfied with the way things are going," says Ken Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. "The polls show that when Giuliani ran for reelection, people disagreed with him on almost every issue. They just thought he was a good leader."
The primary isn't until September, and the election until November. But the campaigning has started early with an intensity that has taken many pundits by surprise.
In part, it's because of Bloomberg's private fortune. In an unprecedented move, he's already gone on the air to tout his accomplishments at a cost of $10 million, more than all his opponents have spent combined. In 2001, he spent almost $75 million of his own money to win. This year, pundits are predicting he may bankroll as much as $100 million.
That money has helped fuel the perception that he's out of touch, a theme his opponents hit on regularly at the mayoral forum earlier this month.
"We can't allow a man with $6 billion and $100 million in spending to cut off the resources to everybody else," says Tom Ognibene, one of the little-known Republicans challenging Bloomberg in the primary, referring to a campaign-finance board proposal that would make it harder for unions to donate to multiple candidates.
The mayor is just as quick to counter that, reminding voters of his modest beginnings and his daily chats with his mother, who still lives in the house he was raised in.
"When we talk tonight, I'll tell her I was greeted warmly," he jokingly told the union workers, though the cheers were indeed louder than the jeers.
For the four Democrats in the race, meanwhile, the challenge has been to distinguish themselves. Until recently, former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, who lost a bitter primary in 2001, had a lead in the polls, beating his three primary rivals and even the mayor. But last month, he told a crowd that he did not think the 1999 shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo was a crime. As a result, his support plummeted, and Bloomberg has pulled ahead.
Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields has also started a steady climb in the polls. She's vying to become the first African-American woman to lead the city.
The two other contenders, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and US Rep. Anthony Weiner, are registering in the low teens.
But overall in the mayoral race, there's another issue, like that proverbial elephant in the room: the United States' bid to host the Olympics in New York.
Bloomberg has made winning the 2012 Games a centerpiece of his administration. And key to the bid is building an unpopular $1.9 billion stadium on the city's far West Side. The majority of the City Council has recently endorsed state financing for it, and a pivotal vote in Albany will be held this week.
Still, his opponents continually chide him for not only ignoring the public's will, but also negotiating a bad deal.
"What kind of businessman sells a billion-dollar property for a hundred million dollars to build a stadium that we don't need on land owned by the MTA, which is so broke it can't repair its tracks?" says political analyst Fred Siegel, author of "The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life." "Bloomberg is a weak mayor with a record of nonaccomplishments."
But even in this predominantly Democratic union crowd, Bloomberg's support is evident. After Ellen Maxwell listed off her three favorite candidates at the forum - Ms. Fields, Mr. Ferrer, and Mr. Miller - she reluctantly said that Bloomberg "is doing a good job, actually a great job - and I don't see anyone out there who can beat him."
Would she vote for him again? "Sure. Why not?"