New Yorkers went to the polls Tuesday to choose a new mayor, as voters across the United States cast ballots in the first major round of elections since President Barack Obama was re-elected last year.
The race in the Big Apple -- in which progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio is widely tipped to replace billionaire Michael Bloomberg -- is one of several seen as a barometer of public opinion ahead of congressional elections in 2014.
Also closely watched are the elections in New Jersey and Virginia for state governors, with Republican incumbent Chris Christie -- a possible presidential contender in 2016 -- a virtual shoo-in in New Jersey.
Before a meeting with business leaders, Obama cautioned against making early election calls.
"Never predict elections," the president said. "That's a losing proposition -- better to predict the World Series than elections."
De Blasio, 52, and his black formerly lesbian wife promise a new style in a city transformed by 12 years of tough love under Bloomberg, who is stepping down after a record three terms.
He is one of the most progressive politicians in the country and has left Republican rival Joe Lhota trailing in the dust in the biggest city in the United States by tapping into the worries of the economically vulnerable middle class.
The city of 8.3 million has six times as many Democrat voters as Republicans, yet a win for de Blasio would make him the first Democrat elected mayor since 1989.
"I think the people of this city know that so many New Yorkers are struggling just to make ends meet," he said after voting with wife Chirlane in his gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, accompanied by their teenage children Chiara and Dante.
"We need to make very serious progressive change and move away from Bloomberg-era policies and I'm ready to do it and I need the support of New Yorkers to get it done."
De Blasio has focused on the yawning gulf between rich and poor in a city with more than 440,000 millionaires but where 21 percent live in poverty on $30,944 a year for a family of four.
He promises to raise taxes to fund universal pre-kindergarten education and after-school programs, and build 200,000 affordable housing units.
His family has featured prominently in his campaign, an effort to connect to a diverse New York where 33.3 percent are white, 25.5 percent black, 28.6 percent Hispanic and 12.7 percent Asian.
Lhota was upbeat Tuesday despite trailing in the polls.
"Doing well, doing well. Very optimistic about today," he said after voting in upmarket Brooklyn Heights.
He served as deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani and is a respected former chairman of the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Before being public advocate, de Blasio was on the city council for eight years, a housing official under President Bill Clinton and managed Hillary Clinton's New York Senate race in 2000.
There are questions about whether he has the experience to lead a city hall staff of 300,000 and a budget of $72 billion.
There are also concerns that New York politics will again fall victim to cronyism and election-cycles after Bloomberg, whose vast wealth left him beholden to no one, steps down.
Adriana, 63, who works for a charity, said she had voted for de Blasio as a life-long Democrat but had some reservations.
"I don't know whether he is going to embrace the arts. I don't know whether he will have the pull at City Hall the mayor had. Yes, I am a little concerned, but he is better than the alternative," she said.
Bloomberg campaigned for a change in New York's term limits law and was allowed to stand for and win a third four-year mandate.
He will go down as one of New York's most transformative mayors but leaves behind an electorate divided by his legacy.
There has been a continued reduction in violent crime and his aggressive public health policies, such as banning smoking in bars and restaurants, have been copied in many cities.
In New Jersey, Christie was set to cruise towards a landslide victory riding high on a wave of popularity at odds with the crisis of his party at the national level.
He is increasingly seen as a contender to win the Republican nomination for the White House in 2016 given his pragmatism, charisma and ability to command cross-party support.
But in Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe is expected to beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general and darling of the right-wing Tea Party movement.
Virginia's changing demographics, rural-suburban split and significant military and government employee populations make it a litmus test for the political mood ahead of 2016.
If Christie wins and Cuccinelli loses, as expected, it is likely to solidify thinking that Republicans would be better served with ditching deeply ideological candidates.
"They've got to stop with the Tea Party message because it just doesn't resonate," a party supporter and federal contractor who identified himself as Kellen said after voting in Arlington, Virginia.
© AFP 2014