NEW YORK -- New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won reelection Tuesday, giving him the third term he began seeking last year in campaigning for a change to the city's term-limits law.
But it was a hard-won victory. Despite an election-eve poll that showed Bloomberg comfortably ahead of Comptroller William C. Thompson (D), the result was in doubt for much of the night before Bloomberg pulled away late. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Bloomberg led Thompson by 4 percentage points in the eight-candidate field.
The closeness of his victory is sure to raise speculation about the impact of the term-limits change and how much that served to trump Bloomberg's accomplishments in office. That subject had already dominated conversation at polling places around the city Tuesday.
"The main thing is to get Bloomberg out," said Véronique Doumbé, 52, a filmmaker from West Africa, speaking at an East Village polling place. "I'm coming from a country where the president never wants to leave. Term limits are essential for a democracy."
Even Bloomberg supporters said the change in the law gave them pause.
"I'm not crazy about the way he got himself on the ballot again, but I love the fact that he's non-political," said Vana Gierig, 48, a pianist. "I love the fact that he's creating bike paths."
Other supporters of the self-financed billionaire businessman and political independent said they hoped his business sense could help steer the city into economic recovery. They said they appreciated his even keel and business-like approach to problems among various groups.
"So far I haven't seen another mayor doing better than him," said Gino Pepoli, 79, a retired welder and mechanic.
On Election Day, Bloomberg campaign workers handed out fliers on street corners, while in many neighborhoods, Thompson's people were nowhere to be found.
Some voters said that the little-known Thompson had not made a strong enough case for his own candidacy.
"I don't know anything about his experience or his work," said Joan Capra, a violinist who normally votes Democrat, speaking at a polling station in the West Village.
Others said they were alienated by Bloomberg when he pressed City Council to change the 1993 law limiting lawmakers to two terms, after voters had twice rejected such a change, to allow him to run for reelection. They also noted his record-setting expenditure of more than $85 million of his personal fortune on his campaign, after having spent $55 million and $65 million in his two previous races.
"Why is he here after eight years?" asked Catherine Cook, 50, an art restorer in the East Village. "Does he think he can just buy the election?"
Bloomberg filled mailboxes with fliers every few days. He took out many 60-second television spots, when often Thompson could afford only 15-second ones.
After hiring President Obama's former campaign director of targeting, the mayor ran a highly focused phone campaign. For instance, Chinatown voters older than 45 got a call that is two-thirds Chinese and one-third English, while younger residents of the same neighborhood got a call with more English and less Chinese.
Bloomberg, who is white, also moved to lock up support among key black figures, even drawing in the Rev. Calvin Butts III, the influential pastor of Harlem's Abyssianian Baptist Church, and a longtime friend and ally of Thompson, who is African American. The mayor had made a $1 million donation to the church's development corporation.
"I think everyone feels that this is a really excessive campaign by Bloomberg in every way," said George Arzt, a political consultant. "Excessive in the money spent, the amount of ads, and also really, really negative on the part of the mayor."
Meanwhile, Thompson has been "nearly invisible as a comptroller," said Arzt. While he performed well in several debates, he was not able to point clearly to his own achievements.
In debates, Thompson accused the mayor of focusing on city subsidies for a luxury replacement for the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He positioned himself as an advocate for middle-income people, and noted that middle-class renters are caught between job losses and rent hikes.
The mayor, in turn, presented himself as a more effective education reformer than Thompson, a former school board president. Bloomberg also suggested that Thompson accepted too many big donations from companies that stood to profit from municipal pensions.
Bloomberg first won office in a hard-fought 2001 election over public advocate Mark Green. He sailed to reelection in 2005 over former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer.
New Yorkers also elected a comptroller to replace Thompson, and dozens of other officials. John C. Liu won the comptroller race, becoming the first Asian American to hold citywide office.