ATLANTA — For the second time in eight years, the mayoralty of the South’s most influential city is likely to head to a recount.
Fewer than 800 votes separated Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood after local officials tallied more than 92,000 ballots that were cast in a runoff election on Tuesday, according to unofficial returns. The margin was narrow enough that Ms. Norwood, seeking to become Atlanta’s first white mayor in more than 40 years, said she would ask for a recount.
But Ms. Bottoms and her allies declared victory early Wednesday.
“This has been a very, very, very long campaign, but as we look ahead toward the future, I look forward to engaging with each of you, making sure that our city continues to move forward,” she said. “And for those who did not support me, I look forward to working with you as well because this is still a city for all of us.”
It was a head-spinning night in the Georgia capital for Ms. Bottoms and Ms. Norwood, who traded leads after a fractious campaign in which race was a persistent undercurrent. But the call for a recount lent it a surreal edge: In 2009, Ms. Norwood sought a recount when she trailed in the mayoral election.
Ms. Norwood ultimately lost that race, by 714 votes, to Kasim Reed. Early Wednesday, Ms. Bottoms’s lead was 759 votes — or about 0.8 percent of the vote, within the range in which a candidate is allowed to ask for a recount.
If Ms. Bottoms is eventually declared the winner, she would extend decades of black political power in Atlanta, which has not had a white mayor since 1974. Although a recent poll suggested that Ms. Bottoms was trailing, her campaign appeared to benefit from the support of many of Atlanta’s most influential figures and an aggressive effort to depict Ms. Norwood as exceedingly conservative.
The winner will succeed Mr. Reed, a term-limited Democrat who endorsed Ms. Bottoms, next month. At a raucous campaign gathering early Wednesday, Mr. Reed introduced Ms. Bottoms as his successor.
While the mayoral race in Atlanta is formally nonpartisan, Ms. Bottoms made her political allegiance plain: She was a Democrat whose beliefs aligned with those of a growing city known as something of a Southern bastion for liberal politics. Over the weekend, two of the nation’s most influential Democrats, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, visited Atlanta to campaign for Ms. Bottoms.
Democrats also relentlessly targeted Ms. Norwood, an independent, as “Mary the Republican” and said that her ties to Republicans, as well as her refusal to endorse the Democratic candidate who lost a bitterly contested special election for Congress in June, made her too conservative for Atlanta.
Yet there were relatively few conspicuous policy differences between Ms. Bottoms and Ms. Norwood as they competed to lead Atlanta, a city of about 473,000 people. Like other anchors of major metropolitan areas, Atlanta is struggling with severe income inequality, the perils of gentrification and gridlock for its commuters.
There is also the haze of a federal corruption inquiry at City Hall that undercut Mr. Reed’s final year leading the city. (He has not been charged with any crimes, nor has he been implicated by any of the evidence that has been made public.) And, as with most high-profile campaigns in municipal politics, there were plenty of moments when the contest seemed like little more than a proxy for settling scores and cultivating grudges.
“It’s become more of a name-calling: ‘She’s a Republican!’ ‘This is the one who has been involved in criminal activity!’” said Robert A. Holmes, a former state legislator and a biographer of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. “You haven’t really heard a lot about the issues because there’s very little difference between the two.”
Ms. Bottoms and Ms. Norwood both tried to portray themselves as candidates who would serve all of Atlanta’s 242 neighborhoods, from the wealthy enclaves near the Governor’s Mansion to the area surrounding the federal penitentiary that once housed Al Capone. Indeed, Mr. Holmes said he believed that many voters saw the election as a referendum on Mr. Reed’s tenure, which included the construction of a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons that cost about $1.5 billion.
But the matter of whether Atlanta would elect its first white mayor since the Nixon era was an inescapable subject. Most Atlanta residents are black, and the city is a national hub of black education, entertainment and politics.
Yet the mathematics of black influence have shifted as Atlanta has evolved.
“Blacks don’t have a supermajority anymore and, because of that, can’t just rest on the laurels of getting 90 percent of the black vote and being able to win,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who studies African-American politics. “Black voters are still going to be really pivotal in deciding elections, but they’re not the only group here.”
Especially in the campaign’s closing days, race often seemed to be at the forefront. During a televised debate on Sunday, Ms. Norwood had to answer for her use of what Ms. Bottoms described as “racially coded language,” including the terms “thugs” and “felons,” when she was secretly recorded talking about her 2009 defeat. Ms. Norwood, who said the footage had been “spliced and doctored” after her appearance before the Buckhead Young Republicans, argued that she had been promoting the need for integrity in elections.
Ms. Norwood also made her own appeals to the city’s black voters, including a radio advertisement starring Shirley Franklin, a black woman who preceded Mr. Reed as mayor and backed Ms. Norwood in this year’s election.
“Some people say that endorsement may hurt my legacy because I’ve endorsed a white woman over a black woman,” Ms. Franklin said in a segment where she cited her efforts to advance civil rights and mentioned her work for Mr. Jackson.
“This election is about character, transparency and integrity, not race,” she said.
Both candidates mounted aggressive efforts to lure voters to the ballot box for an Election Day that was all but preordained to have a light turnout. Before the polls closed Tuesday night, pollsters and strategists watching the Atlanta contest said their surveys suggested that the city’s attitudes toward race would prove as decisive as get-out-the-vote efforts.
“It’s a story of racial polarization,” Professor Gillespie said. “It’s also a story of turnout.”