NEW YORK – The second-place finisher conceded the Democratic mayoral primary to Fernando Ferrer (search) on Wednesday, sparing the party the threat of a divisive runoff in its uphill quest to unseat Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search).
With absentee ballots still outstanding after Tuesday's primary, Ferrer was just fractions of a percentage point shy of the 40 percent he needed to avoid a runoff with Rep. Anthony Weiner (search), who had 29 percent. Elections officials had said it might take several days to count all the votes.
Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, ignored the threat of a runoff in his speech to supporters late Tuesday. He thanked Weiner, Fields and Miller, saying "we've been opponents in politics, but never opponents in purpose."
"The road has been long, my friends, but this journey has been worth it," Ferrer said. "And we're almost there, because we're about to make history, and in eight weeks we're going to change history."
Ferrer's run is his third try for mayor after losing the primary in 1997 and a runoff in 2001. He would be the city's first Latino mayor if elected.
Weiner, who in mid-August was dead last in some opinion polls, had surged in recent days as his television advertising took hold and he made strong showings in televised debates. He proposes a "middle-class tax cut" for people earning $150,000 or less yearly.
Ferrer had hoped to attract minority voters with endorsements from leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton (search). He proposes funding education with a tax on stock trades.
There are 2.6 million registered Democrats in New York City, but fewer than 460,000 voted Tuesday, and some of those interviewed at the polls said they would back Bloomberg in November.
Not to be upstaged, Bloomberg threw an election night party, even though he did not face a challenger in the primary.
"In the days ahead, the professional politicians will be attacking our record, plenty of silly soundbites and plenty of incredible promises," he told cheering supporters. "But I'm not a professional politician -- something I'm proud of."
Ferrer had edged agonizingly close to winning the primary and becoming the challenger to Bloomberg, a billionaire with robust approval ratings and infinite campaign cash to spend on securing a second term.
But at a news conference outside his childhood home in Brooklyn, Weiner said he would bow out now and present a unified Democratic battle to unseat Bloomberg.
"To succeed, we need focus, we need unity and a chance to make our case against him," Weiner said.
Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller conceded early, with 16 and 10 percent respectively.
The 40 percent Ferrer needed to dodge a runoff with Weiner was out of reach by hundredths of a percentage point. The winner goes into the general election on Nov. 8 against Bloomberg, who is more popular than all four Democrats in recent polls.
Appearing on WNBC-TV news Wednesday morning, Ferrer and Weiner tried to quash concerns that the close vote would weaken the Democratic ticket.
Ferrer said the race would stay positive — suggesting that Bloomberg would benefit from any tension between the two Democrats.
"That's the most important thing: juxtaposing our positive vision for the city against Mike Bloomberg," Ferrer said. "He shouldn't profit from this in the least."
Weiner argued that the close vote would help the Democrats, drawing an additional spotlight to his campaign and Ferrer's. "We're focused on the same thing," he added.
He said he had no plans to challenge any votes during the count.
Ferrer ignored the threat of a runoff in his speech to supporters late Tuesday. He thanked Weiner, Fields and Miller, saying "we've been opponents in politics, but never opponents in purpose."
Weiner, who in mid-August was dead last in some opinion polls, surged in recent days as his television advertising took hold and he made strong showings in televised debates.
His turnaround echoes a pattern of past campaigns. When Weiner ran for City Council in 1991 at the age of 27, the protege of then-Rep. Charles Schumer lagged behind his competitors in fund-raising and was counted out as a serious contender. He won, becoming the youngest person to have been elected to the council.
He faced another long-shot campaign running for the congressional seat vacated when Schumer ran for Senate in 1998. But Weiner was elected to Congress and serves on the Judiciary and Transportation committees.
As a mayoral candidate, he was proposing a "middle class tax cut" for people earning $150,000 or less yearly, among other things.
Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president who also served in the City Council, has hoped to attract minority voters with endorsements from leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton (search) and popular City Comptroller Bill Thompson. He proposes funding education with a tax on stock trades.
His campaign stumbled early, but recovered, after he angered minority communities when he said the 1999 fatal police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant was not a crime.
Polls leading up to the primary found that a majority of New Yorkers believe Bloomberg will beat the Democratic challenger. His personal fortune is worth $5 billion — he spent $74 million to get elected in 2001, and has pledged he will spend whatever it takes to win this year.
Bloomberg himself was a lifelong Democrat until he switched parties in 2001 to avoid a crowded Democratic ticket. He is a moderate who supports abortion rights and has the support of some groups that traditionally back Democrats, such as the city's largest labor union.
Elsewhere around the country, voters in Cincinnati picked two veteran Democrats, City Council member David Pepper and state Sen. Mark Mallory, to compete in November to replace Mayor Charlie Luken, who is not seeking a second term. In Oklahoma, voters overwhelmingly defeated a nickel-a-gallon increase in the price of gas to raise money for road and bridge repairs.