WASHINGTON -- The political spotlight will focus sharply today on a tight contest for mayor of New York City and a tightening race for governor of New Jersey as voters go to the polls in off-year elections in hundreds of communities across the nation.
In the race in New York, the final opinion polls, both public and unpublished, found Democratic Mayor David N. Dinkins and Republican challenger Rudolph W. Giuliani essentially even, suggesting that the outcome will depend largely on who succeeds in persuading his supporters to go to the polls. If there was any late movement, strategists said, it appeared to be toward Mr. Giuliani and still barely discernible.
But the contest getting the most attention from political professionals was that between Democratic Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey and his Republican challenger, Christine Todd Whitman. Polls tracking opinion on a daily basis for both campaigns showed Ms. Whitman had gained some ground in the final week but was still clearly trailing Mr. Florio.
"It's closed up a lot," said Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Everybody recognizes that Christie has been closing fast, but she was in a big hole."
The best indication the race had grown somewhat closer came Saturday when the Florio campaign brought Hillary Rodham Clinton back into the state for the second time in little more than a week after private polling by the Democrats showed the incumbent governor was, in the words of one campaign insider, "collapsing with women." But by Sunday night, Mr. Florio's lead among female voters had firmed up at 10 percent or higher, below the 20 to 30 percent margin shown in some earlier surveys but still comfortable enough to point to a Democratic success today.
The New Jersey contest was getting the greatest attention from the political community as an indicator of whether a political leader can pass a huge tax increase -- in Mr. Florio's case, $2.8 billion in 1990 -- and recover politically by making the case that the "hard decision" paid dividends. If Mr. Florio succeeds today, the odds will drop on other governors who have faced major fiscal problems, such as Republican Pete Wilson of California and Democrat Lawton M. Chiles Jr. of Florida.
Such a result also might be read as a sign that President Clinton may take unpopular actions now without necessarily compromising his prospects for winning a second term in 1996. None of the other elections today is expected to provide as many opportunities to draw general inferences.
In New York the question is simply whether Mr. Dinkins' performance as mayor has been so badly received -- particularly his handling of the crime problem -- that he will suffer enough defections among usually liberal Democrats to elect Mr. Giuliani. But a Giuliani victory, coming on the heels of Republican Richard Riordan's success in Los Angeles last spring, obviously would strengthen the GOP's case that liberal Democrats are out of touch with the concerns of voters in big cities.
The other high-visibility election scheduled today is for governor of Virginia to succeed L. Douglas Wilder, who is not eligible for a second term. But all the polls and most of the private assessments of politicians seem agreed that Republican George Allen, the son of the former coach of the Washington Redskins, holds a wide lead over former state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.
Voters in three major cities will be voting on successors to mayors of some national prominence -- Coleman Young of Detroit, Raymond S. Flynn of Boston and Maynard H. Jackson of Atlanta. In Boston, acting Mayor Thomas Menino is favored over state Rep. James Brett. In Detroit, former state Supreme Court Judge Dennis Archer leads prosecutor Sharon McPhail. And in Atlanta, City Councilman Bill Campbell is favored over a council colleague, Myrtle Davis, and Michael Lomax, former chairman of the Fulton County Commission, although a runoff may be required Nov. 23 if no one wins a majority.
In Miami, the leading candidates to succeed the retiring Xavier Suarez are former Mayor Stephen Clark, who held the office almost 30 years ago, and Miriam Alonso, a Cuban-American member of the City Council. But there are six candidates on the ballot, increasing the chance of a runoff next Tuesday if no one receives more than 50 percent.
Three other big city mayors -- Bob Lanier of Houston, Michael White of Cleveland and Norman Rice of Seattle -- are odds-on to win re-election easily.
There are also scores of referendums at both state and local levels. In California, polls indicate voters will reject Proposition 174, which would provide vouchers that parents could use to send their children to either public or private schools.