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Democrats Vote in Primary for N.Y. Mayor Post


NEW YORK — Democrats voted in a low-turnout primary Tuesday to pick a candidate to oppose New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who polls show to be a strong favorite to win a second term.

Manhattan Borough President Ruth W. Messinger was the front-runner, but she had to win 40% of the vote over two main opponents--Brooklyn City Councilman Sal F. Albanese and the Rev. Al Sharpton--to avoid a runoff later this month.

Messenger, who made overcrowding in city schools the centerpiece of her effort to unseat Giuliani, waged what many politicians considered a tepid campaign.

She received the last-minute endorsement of former Mayor Edward I. Koch, who said he would vote for her in the primary because she was "far and away the most capable candidate in the Democratic field."

But Koch, a frequent critic of the mayor, nevertheless said he would vote for Giuliani in the general election.

"We haven't been able to come up with a candidate to galvanize the Democratic Party and move it toward the center," he said.

Sharpton pinned his hopes on a solid core of support from minority neighborhoods and anger over the case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant whom prosecutors charge was beaten while in police custody.

Sharpton has said the beating is symptomatic of wider police excesses under Giuliani, which the mayor has vigorously denied.

Before the vote, polls showed Albanese, a former public school teacher and councilman since 1982 from a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, in second place behind Messinger.

Like Giuliani, he is an advocate of community policing. And like Messinger, he has pledged to make educational reform a top priority of his administration.

Albanese has called for changes in election laws to reduce the influence of big contributors and has charged that under New York's Republican mayor, the gap between rich and poor has widened.

Some political strategists predicted that Messinger should benefit from the turnout in Manhattan, where there is a heated race to replace her as borough president.

At the same time, many politicians lamented the quality of her campaign.

"Messinger was one of the smartest people on the City Council, but her campaign has never taken off," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. "She had a very difficult time finding an issue that resonates with New Yorkers."

In making school overcrowding her chief issue, Messinger not only ran into opposition from Giuliani, but also from the city's schools chancellor, Rudy Crew, who charged she was "denigrating the public school system for personal gain."

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