updated 12/1/2009 6:56:49 PM ET 2009-12-01T23:56:49

Voters were choosing Atlanta’s new mayor Tuesday in a decision likely to break down along racial lines, as a white city councilwoman faced a black former state senator.

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Mary Norwood and Kasim Reed waged a hard-fought battle across the city and over the airwaves in the month leading up to the runoff election. Norwood could become Atlanta’s first white mayor in a generation.

Turnout was expected to be low. Polls were set to close at 8 p.m. EST.

The winner will inherit a list of challenges after taking office on Jan. 4.

They include the city’s sagging finances, easing citizens’ fears about crime, fostering a working relationship with state lawmakers and returning the city to its reputation as the jewel and economic engine of the South.

Reed steadily gained momentum in the runoff election, with a blitz of endorsements that have kept his name in the local media. Reed raised more money than Norwood during the runoff, but Norwood had more cash on hand entering the final stretch of the campaign. The latest finance reports showed Norwood spent about $2 million in the runoff compared to Reed’s $798,000.

Early voting and absentee ballots cast in Tuesday’s runoff were on track with the November general election. The Fulton County Board of Elections reported 6,699 early votes for Tuesday’s runoff. The county also processed 2,474 absentee ballots, although not all were for the Atlanta runoff.

The city’s changing racial demographics could affect Tuesday’s outcome. In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.

Political observers have predicted the vote will largely break down along racial lines.

In November, voters were barraged with ads and phone messages and the race dominated local media. Jessica Gardom, said the frequent Robocalls about the campaign were a turnoff.

“I think I voted for the people who called me least,” said Gardom, who voted for Norwood — who owns an automated telephone calling business.

Norwood, a former radio executive and a Junior League veteran, ran a grassroots campaign as “an outsider,” despite having served in an at-large post on the city council since 2001. Tom Austin, an attorney who voted for Norwood, said he felt she represented a change in Atlanta politics.

“I believe that Mr. Reed is just more of the same that we’ve had for the past several administrations,” Austin said.

In the campaign for the Nov. 3 general election, Norwood was seen as the front runner and some speculated that she might win outright. Instead, the crowded field of candidates — including many blacks who split the city’s African American vote — forced a runoff election between Norwood and Reed, who resigned his state Senate seat to run for mayor.

Reed has modeled himself in the tradition of iconic Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson — elected the city’s first black mayor in 1973 — and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was seen by many as the heir apparent to the Jackson legacy, which also includes current Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Odie Donald considered voting for both candidates, but ultimately went with Reed, whom he also voted for in the general election. The 31-year-old Atlanta native said he admired Norwood’s commitment to the city, but chose the former lawmaker because he felt Reed would get things done. Donald, who is black, said race was not a deciding factor.

“I can’t necessarily say that weighed heavily into my decision,” Donald said. “It’s like an added bonus.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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