Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner and Bill Thompson are running virtually...

Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner and Bill Thompson are running virtually neck-to-neck-to-neck in the New York City mayoral race, according to a Quinnipiac poll. (June 27, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert/Getty Images

Making second place your campaign goal may sound strange.

But in New York City's Democratic mayoral primary, the candidates who land first and second stand to win the same reward -- the equivalent of a playoff berth.

And the probability of this second contest -- an Oct. 1 runoff to follow the Sept. 10 primary -- already is affecting candidates' strategies.

A runoff looks more likely every day. While sext-vexed Anthony Weiner's numbers take a hit, to the benefit of other candidates, nobody in the pack seems any closer to the 40 percent needed under city law to be nominated outright and avoid a runoff, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn led with 27 percent. She looked likely to face either ex-Comptroller Bill Thompson or Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, both in the low 20s according to Quinnipiac's rough snapshot, in the runoff. Ex-congressman Weiner landed fourth this time, at 16 percent.

In the last Democratic mayoral runoff, 12 years ago, second-place primary finisher Mark Green beat first-place finisher Fernando Ferrer.

"It all starts fresh once that runoff is set," said one campaign strategist.

That's when they get out the Etch-a-Sketch, as a Mitt Romney aide famously said of the post-primary presidential contest.

In 2009, de Blasio landed a mere percentage point ahead of the same Mark Green in the first round for public advocate -- about 33 to 32 percent. But in the runoff, with a significantly smaller turnout, de Blasio beat Green 63 to 35 percent.

Even with serious questions raised about Comptroller John Liu's campaign-finance practices -- including the criminal convictions of a fundraiser and a former aide, now on appeal -- other mayoral candidates have generally avoided attacking Liu.

The likely reason: Other candidates want to inherit the single-digit but possibly loyal share of the primary vote that Liu appears to command.

"No one is attacking John," the strategist said, "because barring something that no one can credibly predict, his post-primary endorsement would count."

Attacking one of several candidates carries risks anyway. While hurting the intended target, it also can cause a backlash against the contender who has gone negative -- perhaps to the benefit of a third candidate, the strategist said.

That may be why other candidates afforded Weiner kid-glove treatment immediately after he entered the race in May. Nobody in Weiner's initial forum appearances hammered at his resignation from Congress only two summers earlier, as would have been expected in a one-on-one debate.

This week's Quinnipiac poll found that either Thompson or Quinn would trounce Weiner one-to-one, but Thompson leading Quinn head-to-head, 50 to 40 percent. De Blasio was not polled as a runoff candidate.

But unlike either Thompson or de Blasio, the speaker has been targeted by an independently funded campaign called "Anybody But Quinn," whose organizers claimed responsibility for helping suppress her poll numbers in recent months.

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