"The welfare rolls have been cut, and nobody's saying they want to grow them again," said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute and a scholar of New York City politics. "No Democrat wants to go back to the days of squeegee men [transients who wash car windows] on the street. There is a broad consensus in the city now, and this puts real restraints on candidates."
Democrats hold a 4-1 voter registration edge, and many observers expect them to recapture City Hall in the November election. Three of their candidates, including Green, Hevesi and Vallone, have been largely deferential to Giuliani's legacy, pledging to continue the city's general direction. Ferrer hopes to become New York's first Latino mayor and has cast himself as the "anti-Giuliani" candidate. His strategy is to forge a black-Latino coalition, but so far Ferrer has struggled to ignite grass-roots enthusiasm outside his Bronx base.
A key factor is that no African American candidate is running for mayor, unlike the three previous elections. Black voters traditionally account for 20% to 25% of the turnout in a city Democratic primary, and all four candidates are busy seeking their support. Rev. Al Sharpton's endorsement is expected to carry a lot of political weight, but so far he has remained mum.
Green is the early front-runner, according to most polls, garnering 27% to 34% of Democratic support. Most observers expect the race to tighten after Labor Day, when New Yorkers begin to pay more attention. Even so, the city seems resigned to a less-volatile contest than the heated clashes in 1989 and 1993 between Giuliani and David N. Dinkins, New York's first American American mayor.
"On the Democratic side, this is a campaign of rhetoric, not passion," said Arzt. "The candidates seem identical, and people get complacent."
A more intriguing battle is shaping up among the Republicans, where Bloomberg--who bolted from the Democratic Party last fall--has already spent more than $8 million of his own money, far more than all other candidates combined. He has declined to participate in the city's campaign finance program, which provides matching public funds to mayoral candidates but limits their expenditures to just over $5 million. Bloomberg, a self-proclaimed political neophyte, has attracted more media attention than any other candidate, often because he has stumbled in the early going. He's had to clarify statements that suggested city sanitation workers face greater safety risks than police officers and firefighters. He also backed off comments that appeared to ridicule the matching fund law. Last week, he stirred controversy by proposing to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms and suggesting that the Lord's Prayer was not a Christian prayer.
Despite an early, saturation TV ad campaign, Bloomberg faces a tough race against Badillo, who is a more conservative candidate appealing to hard-core GOP voters. While Badillo has been heavily outspent, some think he has a realistic chance of winning in a primary in which only 120,000 Republicans are expected to participate.
Much will depend on how intensely the media cover the campaign, and so far TV stations and local newspapers have been easily distracted, said Maurice Carroll, who runs the Quinnipiac Poll. And then there's the matter of the mayor himself.
"Are there any limits to what this guy can do and the attention he attracts?" asked Carroll. "Sure there are. They're called term limits."