AFTER MONTHS of community meetings and debates, thousands of handshakes and millions of dollars in TV advertising, voters finally take over today - choosing a Democratic candidate who will be the odds-on choice to succeed John Street as mayor.

Primary-election contests for the state Supreme Court will be at the top of ballots across Pennsylvania. Dozens of local candidates are vying for City Council; for Common Pleas, Municipal and Traffic courts; and for city row offices.

But the small armies of Election-Day workers in Philadelphia will be preoccupied with the Democratic race for mayor, in which five heavyweight candidates have been slugging it out for months.

The Democratic hopefuls sought out potential voters well into the evening last night, while their campaigns organized get-out-the-vote efforts, trying to make sure their supporters find their way to polling places.

Former Councilman Michael Nutter, the leader in the most recent public-opinion polls, scheduled 10 stops throughout the city on his last full day of campaigning.

He told reporters that his mostly volunteer Election-Day operation would be "comparable with anybody else out there."

Businessman Tom Knox sipped soda from a can at the Reading Terminal while introducing himself to potential voters. He was approached by several strangers who recognized Knox from his heavy TV advertising and promised their support.

Knox wrote more than $2 million in checks to his own campaign last week, pushing his total personal contributions just above $10 million.

His less-well-off rivals, constrained by a new city ordinance limiting individual donations to $5,000, raised barely $12 million among them.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady enthusiastically worked the other side of the terminal market but never crossed paths with Knox.

Brady told reporters that he'd have an army of more than 3,000 Democratic committee people working for him today and that he put more stock in people than in polls.

"I remember going to bed with [former Mayor Wilson] Goode having a 17-point lead, and he won by half a point," Brady said.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah held a sidewalk rally on Broad Street. He condemned media coverage of the campaign, alleging bias in favor of Nutter, who won endorsements from both daily papers and Philadelphia magazine, among other publications.

"Don't be fooled by media manipulation," Fattah told 100 cheering supporters. "I just want them to get the headline right for Wednesday . . . 'Fattah breakthrough!' "

A light-hearted state Rep. Dwight Evans hung out with volunteers and greeted passersby at 15th and Fitzwater streets yesterday afternoon.

"To be honest with you, I think most people are still figuring it out," he said of the race.

Despite lagging in the polls, Evans said he planned to fight to the end.

"I'm still eternally optimistic about people," he said.

Various political consultants predicted a low turnout today, in the range of 35 percent to 40 percent.

But Zack Stalberg, president of the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy, said he expected good weather, competitive races for Council and interest in the mayor's race to drive the Democratic turnout closer to 50 percent. *