Atlanta has had a black mayor for a generation, a point of pride for African-Americans who make up some 60 percent of the city.
City councilwoman Mary Norwood hopes to end that streak. Norwood was the top vote-getter in Tuesday's six-way race but fell short of the 50 percent plus one of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. On Dec. 1, she faces Kasim Reed, a black state senator who earned 36 percent of the vote to Norwood's 46 percent.
Race could be pivotal as citizens rally to select a new leader for the Southern capital regarded as the nation's black mecca.
"Race seems to become more salient in a runoff," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "If you have one black candidate and one white candidate, each candidate consolidates the support within his or her racial group."
Turnout is almost always lower in a runoff so the challenge is to convince campaign-weary voters to trek back to the ballot box after the Thanksgiving holiday, said Tom Perdue, campaign manger for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss' runoff in Georgia last year.
Chambliss revved up the state's vaunted GOP turnout operation and kept a parade of ex-GOP presidential candidates - including Alaska Gov. Sarah Plain - traipsing through the state. Even so, turnout plunged from 65 percent in the general election to 35 percent in the runoff race.
Money will also be key as the candidates rush to replenish warchests left bare.
Norwood said Wednesday she needed "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to compete. The morning after the election, she said she had already secured pledges worth well over $100,000.
A spokesman for Reed said he had promises of more than $200,000 in donations.
But those campaign coffers may make up only a part of the race's total price tag. Outside groups are likely to weigh in. In the days leading up to the general election, the state Democratic Party shipped out mailers casting Norwood as a closet Republican, a charge she has rejected. The attacks could intensify.
Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson as its first black mayor in 1973 and has had black mayors ever since.
Norwood began campaigning in neighborhoods across the majority African-American city at least a year ago - and some say even longer - to overcome her address in Buckhead, an affluent part of the city. She could lose some of that goodwill if blacks vote along racial lines, but if black turnout is low - as it typically is in a runoff scenario - that could work in Norwood's favor.
Then again, runoffs in Atlanta's mayoral races have historically come down along racial lines, with the outcome in favor of the black candidate. Maynard Jackson defeated Sam Massell, the city's last white mayor, in a runoff; likewise, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young defeated Atlanta businessman Sidney Marcus in runoff in 1981.
Tuesday's black vote was split. Four of the six candidates in the race were black.
Michael Owens, a professor of political science at Emory University who specializes in urban politics, said Atlanta's rich and complicated racial history, blacks in particular view candidates through the prism of race.
But he said this year that the tough economy could trump race.
"Mary Norwood has been running a campaign that really taps into those anxieties and that could make her an attractive crossover candidate," he said.
Current Mayor Shirley Franklin, the city's first female in the office, was prevented from running again by term limits.
Reed has been a state lawmaker and Democratic operative for more than a decade. He spent thousands of dollars to introduce himself to voters and propelled him to among the front-runners.
Norwood joined the city council in 2002 and ran a grassroots campaign as an outsider who vowed to make the city safer and more transparent. She has blamed the outgoing mayor for the city's woes.
"They are going to be in more of an attack mode," said Bob Holmes, a former state representative and retired political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. "Reed was kind of splitting his criticism, but he will concentrate on Norwood now."