By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Yorkers began voting for their first new mayor in 12 years on Tuesday with public opinion polls giving Democrat Bill de Blasio a 40-point lead over Republican rival Joe Lhota.
De Blasio, the city's public advocate, has campaigned as much against the legacy of departing Mayor Michael Bloomberg as against Lhota, who was a deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani and later the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"This election is a very stark contrast between two very different candidates. Mr. Lhota clearly wants to maintain the status quo in the city. I'm calling for fundamental change," de Blasio said after voting in Brooklyn.
De Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, and daughter, Chiara, also voted. His son, Dante, a high-school sophomore, was there as well.
De Blasio won a hotly contested Democratic primary in September by focusing on the controversial "stop-and-frisk" police tactic endorsed by Bloomberg and by criticizing the billionaire mayor for presiding over "two New Yorks" - one rich, one poor.
He has also promoted expanding access to pre-kindergarten and said he would fight the closings of community hospitals.
"He's the first candidate for mayor in a long time that I'm actually excited about, excited about (him) actually helping to bring the city together and deal with issues of poverty," voter Russell Neufeld, 66, a lawyer, said at his polling site in Brooklyn.
Polling places close at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT).
Lhota insists he is the candidate of change and that de Blasio will lead the city back to its dark days of high crime and poor fiscal management.
"I'm very optimistic about today," Lhota told reporters after voting in Brooklyn. "Everything I've done I've wanted to do and I'm looking forward to tonight."
A Marist poll released on Monday had de Blasio leading Lhota 65 percent to 24 percent among likely voters.
"Bill de Blasio continues to be the overwhelming favorite with New York City voters while Joe Lhota can't get any traction," Marist pollster Lee Miringoff said.
Democrats have been locked out of City Hall for two decades despite holding a 6-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans.
Bloomberg, founder of the eponymous financial news and information company that competes with Thomson Reuters, spent more than $260 million of his own money on his three elections.
De Blasio rose in the polls while lamenting that the contrast between the "haves" and "have nots" has grown increasingly stark.
He has especially criticized the controversial police tactic of stop-and-frisk, which critics say unfairly targets poor blacks and Latinos. Bloomberg has called the approach central to the city's anti-crime fight, while de Blasio has blasted it as destructive to police and community relations.
Lhota has launched an assault of negative ads. But that strategy has mostly backfired with an increasing number of voters saying they have a negative view of the Republican, Marist found.
During three debates, de Blasio's tactic of linking Lhota to Republicans and the Tea Party movement in Congress has been more successful, forcing Lhota to distance himself from his party.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Dilts, Noeleen Walder and Curtis Skinner; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Maureen Bavdek)