De Blasio Leading in NYC Mayoral Primary

Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, right, greets Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio at the Staten Island ferry terminal, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York.
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By JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Bill de Blasio held a clear lead Tuesday night in New York City's mayoral Democratic primary as polls closed, according to early and incomplete voting returns. It was unclear, though, whether he would top the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

De Blasio's rise was as sudden as it was unexpected.

Not even two months ago, he was an afterthought in the campaign but surged in part thanks to an ad blitz that centered on his interracial family, his headline-grabbing arrest while protesting the possible closure of a Brooklyn hospital and the defection of ex-congressman Anthony Weiner's former supporters in the wake of another sexting scandal.

[READ: Anthony Weiner Slips in NYC Mayoral Race]

With 45 percent of precincts reporting, de Blasio, the city's public advocate, has about 39 percent of the total vote. Former city Comptroller Bill Thompson has 26 percent, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has 15 percent. They were followed by current city Comptroller John Liu at 8 percent and Weiner at 5 percent.

Exit polling showed the appeal of de Blasio, the city's elected public advocate, to be broad-based: He was ahead in all five boroughs; was ahead of Thompson, the only African-American candidate, with black voters and ahead of Quinn, the lone woman in the race, with female voters. He also led Quinn, who is openly gay, among gay voters.

The voter interviews were conducted by Edison Media Research for The Associated Press and other news organizations.

If no candidate surpasses 40 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to an Oct. 1 runoff.

[READ: Bill de Blasio, Joe Lhota Appear in Control in New York City Mayoral Primary Races]

The winner of that contest would face the Republican nominee in the Nov. 5 general election. Joe Lhota, ex-MTA chairman and former deputy mayor to Rudolph Giuliani, was battling billionaire grocery magnate John Catsimatidis for the GOP nominee. Exit polling was not available in that race.

In the closely watched race for city comptroller, exit interviews show Manhattan Borough President Stringer running ahead of ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was seeking a return to politics after resigning New York's governor's office in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal.

The winner of the mayor's race in November will assume the helm of the nation's largest city at a critical juncture, as it experiences shrinking crime rates yet widening income inequality, and as the nearly completed One World Trade Center building symbolizes a new era after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Bloomberg, the businessman Republican-turned-independent, is completing his third term. While the city's registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1, the GOP's recent success in mayoral elections has been largely attributed to a crime epidemic, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks or other extraordinary circumstances.

Nearly three-quarters of Democratic primary voters say the next mayor ought to move away from Bloomberg's policies, according to the exit polls.

[READ: Anthony Weiner's Mayoral Prospects Dim Amid Scandal]

And De Blasio, 52, has fashioned himself as the cleanest break from the Bloomberg years, proposing a tax on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten and changes to city police practices he says discriminate against minorities.

"I'm a lefty and I've had enough of the righties," said Jessica Safran, a business consultant from the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn who voted for de Blasio. "Even if de Blasio moves to the center if he gets elected, he'll be closer to the positions I want than the others."

De Blasio, who worked in Bill Clinton's White House and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign before being elected to the city council and then public advocate, the city's official watchdog position.

"I liked what he said about the economic inequality in the city," said Norma Vavolizza, 65, who lives in the Bronx and works in marketing. "I think it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed.