DENVER, JUNE 30 -- Wellington E. Webb, formerly the city auditor, smiles as he describes himself as "the first mayor of this city with a mustache."

It is Webb's way of poking fun at the obvious, that upon taking the oath of office Monday he becomes this predominantly white city's first black mayor.

And just as Webb, 50, does not dwell on race, neither apparently did Denver voters. In the May general election, they picked Webb and another black candidate, District Attorney Norm Early, over six white candidates.

Although some political observers attribute the low voter turnout in the general and runoff elections to disaffection among some white voters, questions of race were never raised during the campaign. And there was no racial innuendo; no pandering to ethnic issues or prejudices.

Race became an issue only after the primary, "in the sense of people saying 'Hey, race wasn't an issue'," said Rick Reiter, a political consultant.

Candidates and observers, black and white, say a combination of western individualism, optimism about economic revival, the candidates' public records, the absence of severe racial polarization and coalition building engendered by Mayor Federico Pena explain how the city ushered in this new era with such apparent ease.

None of this is to suggest that Denver is free of racial concerns, said state Sen. Regis Groff (D), who points to white flight to suburbs and the transformation of the public school population to "majority minority."

Still, Groff said, "I think the city can take great pride in what it has done."

Of Denver's 467,000 residents, 12 percent are black and about 25 percent are Hispanic. Pena, who served two terms, was the city's first Hispanic mayor. He declined to seek a third term.

Denver is among a handful of predominantly white cities that recently have elected black mayors. Among them are Kansas City, Mo.; Dayton, Ohio; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Seattle.

Some analysts suggest that white voters in cities with relatively small black populations feel less threatened by black leadership than in cities with large black populations, where the election of a black mayor sparks concern among white voters about a potential shift in the balance of power. The fault lines for political battles in Denver, analysts say, are issues and individuals more than ethnic affiliation.

"In the East, you have the breakdown of politics along ethnic lines and the ethnic ward healers" dating from the last century, said Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver-based think tank. Burgess, a former national Democratic Party official, is co-chairman of Webb's transition team.

In the West, voters operate in "a political culture that began to take shape in the post-war period," Burgess said.

Early, who moved to Denver from Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, said migrants such as himself brought with them a can-do attitude akin to the old pioneer spirit.

"I'm not trying to create a pie-in-the-sky picture," he said, but racial divisions and animosities in the West are "not as ingrained as you'd have in so many eastern cities."

"They will indeed judge you on the basis of your ability rather than your skin color," Early said of city voters.

The Colorado political and racial climate of the '80s and '90s differs dramatically from the climate of the 1920s, when Ku Klux Klan members held key public offices in the state, including the governorship.

Omar D. Blair, an urban renewal official in the 1960s who became a school board member in the '70s and '80s, said the record of minority public officials has dispelled old myths.

"The fear {among whites} of inefficient, ineffective people has been disproven so many times, the folks in this town don't buy that anymore," Blair said.

Early, who was supported by the business community, was favored after the May primary in which he won 41 percent of the vote, compared with Webb's 30 percent. Both are Democrats. Don Bain, a white Repulican lawyer, received 27 percent.

Although he ran out of money before the primary, Webb waged a successful underdog's campaign.

He put on his trademark sneakers and walked the city more than 21 days, staying in a different neighborhood each night. In addition, he received Bain's endorsement and the potential of more votes in conservative quarters. In the runoff, he won 57 percent of the vote, to Early's 43 percent.

Webb, a former teacher, was a three-term state representative and was appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter as the six-state regional director for the Health, Education and Welfare Department. In 1981, then-Gov. Richard D. Lamm (D) named him to head the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. He placed fourth in the mayoral primary in 1983 and was elected city auditor in 1987.

As mayor, he faces several large-scale projects, including construction of an international airport. The city is trying to lure United Airlines to build a maintenance facility that would bring thousands of jobs, and a ballpark is to be built now that major league baseball is coming to town.

With the city coming back from the oil bust and a recession, voters are in the mood for getting things done. While they have chosen Webb to do it, he expects that he will be watched more closely than if he were another kind of mayor.

"I think the scrutiny for me will be much more than if I didn't have this mustache," he said, smiling.