Just a few weeks ago, some suggested Atlanta was about to name its first white mayor in a generation. Instead, the Nov. 3 election set up a hard-fought runoff battle that's expected to break down largely along racial lines when voters return to the polls Tuesday.
Mary Norwood, the white candidate, and former state Sen. Kasim Reed, an African-American, are vying for a critical mass of racial crossover votes, with victory likely hinging on black-versus-white turnout.
"What it comes down to is if she gets more black votes than he gets white votes," said political strategist Tom Houck. "When people say race doesn't matter, obviously it does. There is no dominant issue that distinguishes these two other than she's a white woman and he's a black guy."
Indeed, while the folksy and perky city council member Norwood contrasts with the more serious and polished Reed, both candidates have focused on public safety, transparency and accountability in their campaigns. Norwood has been accused of being a closeted Republican and Reed has challenged her for the votes of another key minority, gay Atlantans.
Reed has enjoyed a steady march of endorsements, keeping his name in the local media. Meanwhile, Norwood has stuck to her grassroots strategy. Without big names touting her candidacy, she has held press conferences in blighted neighborhoods around the city.
Early voting suggests strong turnout in Norwood's stronghold. Voters on the city's northside _ where most whites cast ballots _ were outpacing the heavily black southside. The Thanksgiving holiday and a prediction of rain on Tuesday could further depress voter turnout, already expected to be low. Political observers have the candidates tied.
Atlanta, nicknamed "The City Too Busy to Hate," has had black mayors since Sam Massell, the last white mayor, was defeated in 1973. Current Mayor Shirley Franklin became the city's first female mayor in 2002 and is barred from seeking a third term.
Atlanta, with a population of about 500,000, saw its black population share decline from 61 percent to 57 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to the latest Census figures. During the same time period, the white population grew from 33 percent to 38 percent.
During the general election, Norwood was widely considered the front-runner, as the crowded field of mostly black candidates fractured the city's black vote. She had considerable funding, a successful ground campaign and notable black support, which she has cultivated in seven years on the city council. People even talked of an outright Norwood victory on Nov. 3.
Reed left his post as a state senator to run for mayor, a dream he has held since he was a college freshman. He started late with little money and hardly any name recognition. But within weeks, bolstered by high-profile endorsements, Reed's coffers and support grew.
Norwood took 46 percent of the vote in the six-person general election _ short of the 50 percent of the vote plus one needed to avoid a runoff _ compared with Reed's 36 percent. About 33 percent of the city's 237,000 registered voters cast ballots.
"Kasim Reed was an unknown in the broader community and had nowhere to go but up," said former mayor Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition. "It's hard to believe there are any undecideds about Mary Norwood because of her long history."
Reed also stands to pick up voters from former challenger Lisa Borders, who finished a distant third in the general election with 14.5 percent of the vote. Borders, who is black, has since thrown her support behind Reed.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock noted that although there are 25,000 more registered black voters than white ones in Atlanta, a larger percentage of whites voted on Nov. 3 _ 35 percent, compared with 25 percent of registered blacks.
"For whatever reason, whites were more interested in voting than blacks," Bullock said.
Black voters could have been waiting for things to shake out in the general election, said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was among the first to endorse Reed.
"People didn't want to take sides," Young said. "They figured they'd see who the lead candidate was."
Since the runoff, Reed has also picked up support from Young's civil rights-era colleague, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, baseball legend Hank Aaron and many of the city's black clergy _ who could be key in mobilizing their congregations.
Massell's 1973 runoff campaign slogan was a covert warning to city whites: "Atlanta's Too Young to Die." He lost to Maynard Jackson, who rode 90 percent of the black vote to become Atlanta's first black mayor.
That office, along with much of the city's leadership, has been black ever since. For many, Tuesday's vote will determine whether it stays that way.
"Atlanta is a black city, a symbol to the world," Houck said. "Putting Mary's face on that picture would be hard for a lot of people to stomach."