WASHINGTON (AP) - The defining moment of a bizarre election season in the nation's capital wasn't provided by Mayor Vincent Gray or any of the seven Democrats trying to unseat him in next week's primary. Instead, it came from the city's top prosecutor.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said this month that Gray knew about an illegal, $668,000 "shadow campaign" that helped propel him into office four years ago. Despite denials from the mayor, who has not been accused of a crime, the revelation further damaged an incumbent whose support had already eroded amid a long-running federal investigation.
Loyalists are rallying around the mayor, and few are writing him off. But his troubles have provided an opening for one of his challengers, and D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser appears to be taking advantage. Two polls released a week before the primary showed Bowser in a statistical tie with Gray.
"I just want a clean slate," said Ben Jones, a disabled veteran who said he previously voted for Gray but voted for Bowser at an early voting site this week.
The large field, weak incumbent and early April 1 date have made the primary unusual. In the past, the city has selected a Democratic nominee in September, followed by a two-month victory lap and a mostly ceremonial general election. Three out of four registered voters in the city are Democrats.
For Gray, primary day brings two possibilities, neither entirely appealing.
If he wins, he'd have the distraction of a possible court battle while he runs against independent D.C. Councilmember David Catania in the general election.
Gray has pledged not to drop out of the race or resign if he's indicted, and he said voters should not be concerned about his job performance in that scenario. Robert Bennett, the mayor's attorney, said that if Gray is charged, he would seek a speedy trial in a bid to clear the mayor's name before November.
If Gray loses, he'd be a lame duck for nine months.
Five people involved with Gray's 2010 campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, but the mayor has denied all wrongdoing. The most recent was Jeffrey Thompson, a businessman and government contractor who admitted in court three weeks before the primary that he set up the $668,000 slush fund.
The mayor said the crimes committed by others during his campaign did not bleed over into his administration, and he's asking voters to focus on his accomplishments. Even some critics concede he's done a good job running the city - which is enjoying a robust economy, surging population and improving schools - and polls show a disconnect between voters' negative perception of Gray and their sunny outlook on the district's progress.
"If you look at an airplane analogy, he's been a good pilot, he's flying the plane well, but there's this fundamental question about whether he deserved to be in the cockpit in the first place," said Tony Bullock, a federal lobbyist who was the communications director for former Mayor Anthony Williams.
In some ways, the election is shaping up as a repeat of the 2010 contest, in which Gray defeated Adrian Fenty. Bowser took over Fenty's council seat after he was elected mayor in 2006, aided by an endorsement from the then-popular mayor. Former Fenty advisers are leading her campaign, and she's raised money from donors loyal to him.
But she also says she's learned from the mistakes of Fenty, who was accused of tuning out criticism and failing to recognize that black voters in particular had turned against him. Polls showed voters thought the city was heading in the right direction four years ago, too, but they still voted him out of office.
Bowser said it's impossible to separate Gray's performance in office from questions about how he got there.
Voters "want their mayor to be able to focus on the issues that affect them," she said, and "not on his own legal battles."
Two other councilmembers, Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, would become the city's first white mayor if elected, but polls have shown them struggling to build sufficient support.
Some voters are siding with Bowser primarily because they think she can beat Gray. Elcindor Johnson, 43, a federal employee, said he's undecided between Bowser and Catania. If Gray wins, he said he'd be forced to vote for Catania, who was first elected as a Republican but left the party 10 years ago and has a progressive record.
"I don't want a mayor who is under a cloud of possible indictment," Johnson said.