Mayor Sharpe James's black limousine deposits him at Je's Restaurant -- "Soul of the South, Heart of the City" -- and everyone snaps to attention. "Fast service!" the mayor trumpets. In no time, a waitress is setting the usual -- deep-fried turkey burger and orange soda -- before him at the red vinyl-upholstered booth he favors by the window. "Anything else, Mr. Mayor?" she asks.

This is how James, trim and muscular at 66, is used to running things. He has been mayor for 16 years, and he was a city councilman before that, elected in the wake of riots that rocked Newark and then one major city after another in the late 1960s. Everyone elected with him in the city's black ascendancy has since retired, died or been indicted.

But James is still here, last of the breed -- and running hard for a fifth term. His main opponent, Cory Booker, is a black freshman city councilman half his age who moved here six years ago with degrees from Yale, Stanford and Oxford to organize poor tenants against slumlords. He has attracted glowing media coverage and a record $3 million in campaign contributions, much of it from wealthy, white donors outside Newark.

Whatever the outcome -- polls predict a photo finish -- today's nonpartisan election marks the start of a transition as historic for this city of 273,000 as the black ascendancy of 1970. James, a Democrat, is one of the last big-city black mayors who entered politics through the civil rights movement. Booker, also a Democrat, is his first serious challenger who wasn't shaped by the 1967 riots or the struggle against a notoriously corrupt white political machine. The question embedded in Booker's candidacy is here to stay, as it is nationally: What defines urban leaders in a post-riot, post-movement generation?

In ways, the two men see two Newarks. James, who remembers his city in ashes, celebrates what he calls a "renaissance" on his watch, with a new state performing arts center, a minor-league ballpark downtown and extensive new housing. Booker, who wasn't even born in 1967, deplores a rampant drug trade, slumlords, a towering school dropout rate and a dearth of recreation for children. The election will turn on how voters assign credit or blame for the Newark they see.

James dismisses Booker as a tool of whites, outsiders, right-wingers and the media, and he often questions Booker's black authenticity. Booker says James accused him of plotting with Jews to take over Newark -- which the mayor denies.

This day at Je's, James is wolfing down his lunch to get to an interview with the editorial board of the Star-Ledger, the dominant newspaper here, which, he's certain, will endorse his opponent. (It does.) Hoisting the uneaten portion of his turkey burger defiantly, Newark's war horse declares as he exits: "I'm off to Custer's last stand!"

A Well-Tuned Machine

His Custer metaphor casts him, ironically, as the white man, but there's no mistaking that James is now the establishment here.

He sits atop a black political machine as formidable and oiled with jobs, rewards and retribution as the white one he helped smash in 1970. He boasts that Gov. James E. McGreevey and Sen. Jon S. Corzine, both Democrats, owe him their elections ("Who knew Corzine? It sounded like a medicine!"), and no one disagrees. The entire state party leadership is supporting him.

He makes $213,000 a year as mayor and $35,000 more as a state senator, for a total of $248,000 -- more than the vice president, all 50 governors and mayors of the ten biggest cities. By contrast, 26 percent of Newark lives in poverty, a figure untouched by James's renaissance.

As Booker has told many national audiences, working with poor tenants convinced him that the city's government is part of the problem, coddling slumlords who back the right politicians. He moved into a housing project in the city's poorest ward, where he still lives, and won his council seat in 1998, ousting a four-term James ally.

Booker describes his politics as "pragmatic Democratic." He talks about tackling poverty through activist government and grass-roots organizing of the poor, but also -- like many young blacks -- through vouchers and faith-based and private-sector initiatives, anathema to the Democratic faithful. "I'm looking for ideas that'll empower my community," he says.

His politics are aggressively post-racial. "No more, 'It's our turn.' It's all of Newark's turn," he says. His campaign theme is "A Renaissance for the Rest of Us."

With all the outside attention, the election has become a national contest of ideas about race and politics. James was never a civil rights icon -- his administration has been rocked with corruption scandals, though the mayor has never been indicted -- but movement veterans and many black intellectuals view the infatuation of white liberals and some conservatives with Booker as suspect.

"I heard Cory Booker being referred to as presidential material and I'm saying, 'What?' " said Columbia University political scientist Phil Thompson. "If these sorts of judgments were made about a white person with little political experience, they'd say you were crazy. White people are yearning for this kind of evolution in the black community. A civil rights background is considered not only passe{acute}, but contentious."

A random call to one of Booker's white supporters -- Manhattan investor Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, listed as giving $10,000 -- turned up a self-described loyal Democrat who demanded: "Why do leaders of the Democratic Party, who would never support a white mayor who says the Jews are trying to take over, think they can get away with it because these are poor black voters in Newark? They're sacrificing the very people they should be championing."

Curry, 36, confessed that he paid little attention to Newark's poor blacks before. "It seemed hopeless," he said. "Everyone just looks out and sighs and thinks, 'There's nothing I can do.' Then this guy with great political skills who's willing to make the sacrifices we weren't willing to make comes along, and it reignites the old flame: 'Oh, yeah, we can still change the world.' "

Exhausted Electorate

Back in Newark, the future is in the hands of a demonstrably exhausted electorate. So few even bothered to vote in 1998 that James won with the support of only 18 percent of registered voters. It is not uncommon to run into voters like Rebecca Geter, 74, a retired school cafeteria manager, who says emphatically, "Sharpe should get out. He's been in long enough." And then, of Booker, "He doesn't know anything about us." The unease is evident among black voters nationally as a new generation ascends, and this race is "almost the prototypical case," said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Booker, 6-foot-3, a former football star with a shaved head, was born a year after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. He is a son of IBM Corp. executives who rose out of segregation and participated in the sit-in movement. During Newark's black ascendancy, the Bookers were moving to the white suburb of Harrington Park. They had to enlist white straw buyers and later filed civil rights charges and won.

"We wanted our sons to learn to navigate in the larger world," said Carolyn Booker. "This, too, was part of the struggle of where we are going."James was raised in a one-room Newark apartment by a single mother (his father died while she was pregnant). His older brother, Joseph, an engineer, said the two became driven to succeed from watching their mother, Beulah James Fluker, work endlessly to pay rent and, ultimately, buy a house.

Booker says his parents schooled him in what he calls "the struggle," and instructed him: "To him whom much is given, much is expected." Moving here to work with public housing tenants was a natural progression, he says.

James learned the struggle the old-fashioned way. In the 1960s, as a young schoolteacher and coach, he took on the white leadership of his neighborhood's War on Poverty organization. "It was the only avenue for poor people," he says. "They had all this federal money and weren't hiring any blacks, weren't holding elections." James headed a black slate that won under the banner "We the People."

James ran in 1970 for City Council on a slate headed by Kenneth Gibson, who became the city's first black mayor. Four terms later, James challenged Gibson and beat him, charging that Gibson had taken Newark as far as he could. It's the same charge Booker now levels against James.

Dueling Generations

Booker calls himself the heir of the civil rights generation: They tore down barriers; now young blacks like him live the dream. "I stand on Sharpe James's shoulders," he says.

James, however, does not want him there. His machine is in overdrive. His ward headquarters are packed with volunteers nightly. Booker supporters report being suddenly cited by city code enforcers and denied business permits. City workers tore hundreds of Booker signs off public property, until a court stopped them. Both the state police and federal observers are being deployed to monitor today's voting. In speeches, James touts his renaissance with rhythm: "We're going to the movies! Couldn't do that when I became mayor! We're going roller-skating! Couldn't do that. We're going to the performing arts center." Booker, he says, has no record at all. Indeed, Booker has been more successful as a protester than a legislator, in part because James's allies control the council. "Sixty Minutes II" and Time magazine featured him staging a hunger strike in front of a drug-infested housing project, refusing to leave until police broke up the drug ring. (They did.)

At James's rallies, speakers deride Booker's lighter skin and suburban roots. The mayor said at one rally, as if talking to Booker: "You have to learn to be an African American, and we don't have time to train you." The mayor's campaign slogan is "The Real Deal," and his supporters brand Booker a "black Trojan horse" for white interests. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, stumping with James, said Booker has a "sheeplike appearance and wolflike characteristics."

In return, Booker demands to know why, after 32 years under two black mayors, Newark does not have a vibrant cohort of minority contractors, lawyers and accountants. "The richest people in Newark are not businesspeople," he says. "They're politicians." African American celebrity scholar Cornel West and hip-hop star Queen Latifah are stumping with him this weekend, and Spike Lee is taping calls to voters, calling Booker "the right thing."

Clement Price, an African American historian at Rutgers University-Newark, says this may be the last Newark election so focused on blackness, with blacks less and less of a majority. (They now make up 53 percent of Newark's population; the fast-growing Hispanic population accounts for 30 percent.) Polls show James far ahead among blacks and Booker ahead among Hispanics, whites and younger voters.

"Sharpe's generation see themselves as representatives of the passion and anguish of black people," Price said. "Quite frankly, I think those politics are coming to a close."

'Let's Save Newark!'

If so, James is having a last hurrah. At a recent rally, he had 100 black Muslims on their feet as he cried, "Newark is not for sale!" The audience called out, "Tell it!" and, "That's right!" as James demanded, "Are we ready to fight for freedom in Newark?" Soon the building -- a brewery magnate's mansion built in 1900, now owned by Women in Support of the Million Man March -- was throbbing with chants of, "Let's save Newark!"

Beneficiaries of James's vast patronage are everywhere. But the flip side is mounting dissent among the unfavored. Booker found plenty of them on a recent night, stumping in an East Ward housing project, where the odor of marijuana wafted up the stairwells. He eased from English to rapid-fire Spanish to the slang of the 'hood, and he appeared to connect in every language. "I'm here in the corridor at 3 a.m., running off dealers," Patricia Lewis, a hospital worker, tells Booker. "We need a change!" By night's end, 24 of 30 people he talks to say they'll vote for him. This is a quarter of the number in James's Muslim audience. But Booker would be out the next night, and the one after that. And if he loses, he says, "I'll wake up the front-runner for mayor in 2006."

Staff researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.

Sharpe James is one of the last big-city mayors ushered in by the civil rights movement.Mayoral candidate Cory Booker says, "No more, 'It's our turn.' It's all of Newark's turn."Newark Mayor Sharpe James, left, with Gov. James E. McGreevey, thanks performing arts center supporters.Mayoral hopeful Cory Booker, left, and City Council candidate Ron Rice Jr., center, campaign in Newark.