The question in Atlanta's mayoral election this fall isn't just who will win, but what it may reflect about the demographics of the city. City council member Mary Norwood has a chance to become the first white mayor in decades. Whether she succeeds will depend in part on whether voters focus on the standard fare of municipal elections--taxes, crime and traffic--or whether skin color is the crucial factor.

Polling shows Norwood, who serves at-large on the council, leading the other two top contenders, Council President Lisa Borders and state Senator Kasim Reed, both of whom are black. Since Maynard Jackson became the city's first black mayor in 1973, African-Americans have won the office every four years. But Atlanta's white population has been growing, which helps to explain Norwood's strength.

Against that backdrop, two black college professors wrote a memo in August that seemed to call for Norwood's defeat because she was white. The authors of the memo said their words were misinterpreted, and all the major candidates denounced the sentiments that the memo expressed. Nonetheless, the incident apeared to indicate that race was emerging as the central factor in the election.

Tom Baxter, editor of the Southern Political Report, isn't so sure. "Money and crime," he says "are most of what people are talking about." Faced with a budget shortfall, the City Council voted to raise property taxes this year. Borders favored the increase, while Norwood opposed it. Meanwhile, a series of high-profile crimes has shocked the city, leading all the candidates to demand changes in law enforcement--even Reed, who is close to retiring Mayor Shirley Franklin.

In recent weeks, the racial tensions seem to have died down. But they may return to the spotlight before the primary November 3. If, as expected, no candidate reaches 50 percent in the first round, the top two will advance to a December 1 runoff. Norwood is likely to be in the runoff with either Borders or Reed, setting up a four-week sprint in which the subject of race will be hard to avoid, even if the candidates try.