NEW YORK (AP) — Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had a slim lead over ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in early returns in Tuesday's Democratic primary for city comptroller.
With 76 percent of precincts reporting, Stringer had about 52 percent of the vote, to Spitzer's 48 percent. Interviews with voters leaving their precincts also showed Stringer running ahead.
Since Spitzer's abrupt July decision to run, the two have been headlocked in one of the fiercest political wrestling matches in the city this year.
Spitzer is seeking a comeback five years after resigning as governor and acknowledging he patronized call girls. Stringer is striving to capture a nomination he once expected to snag easily.
Exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for The Associated Press and other news organizations showed the vote divided by race, with Spitzer leading among black voters by a wide margin and Stringer carrying the white vote by a similarly large spread, with Hispanics split about evenly between the two. The relative size of those groups could determine the outcome. The preliminary exit poll of 2,035 Democratic primary voters was conducted in a random sample of 40 precincts citywide.
"We always knew that this race was going to be very tight," Spitzer campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan said Tuesday night.
Spitzer, who was never charged with any crime, asked voters to focus on his record as a hard-charging governor and state attorney general. He was dubbed "the sheriff of Wall Street" for his financial investigations.
That resonated with Paulette Esrig, 81, a retired schoolteacher who voted for him Tuesday at a precinct in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.
"I picked him not because I approve of his personal life at all, but I felt he was well qualified," she said.
But other voters said Spitzer's past scandal drove them to pull levers for Stringer, even if they didn't know much about him despite his 20 years as borough president and a former state assemblyman.
"He's not my favorite, but I think Spitzer is an abomination," said Jullian Stark, 55, a college biology professor, who also voted in Chelsea.
Stringer says he's mastered both fighting for causes and forging compromises during 20 years in public office.
And he has urged New Yorkers not to forgive or forget his opponent's personal misdeeds.
"I didn't resign in disgrace," Stringer said at a candidate forum last week. Earlier, his campaign sent voters a mailer highlighting Spitzer's involvement with prostitutes and featuring a photo of prison bars.
"If this public wants someone who makes a difference, they know who they're going to vote for," Spitzer responded at the forum, organized by the Council of Urban Professionals, a networking group. Spitzer's aides have sent reporters emails mocking Stringer for proclaiming a Justin Bieber appreciation day last year.
Spitzer had double-digit leads in some polls as recently as two weeks ago. But polls Sunday and Monday variously showed the candidates about even or Stringer slightly ahead.
The winner will face a Republican and other opponents Nov. 5.
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Associated Press writer Jake Pearson and AP Radio Correspondent Julie Walker contributed to this story.