The history books will say Michael Nutter won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Philadelphia yesterday.

But the real winner was change - the voters' impulse to take the city in a different direction after eight years of the scandal-scarred Street administration.

Between them, the two candidates who positioned themselves as champions of change captured more than 70 percent of the vote, a repudiation of the city Democratic machine.

"We're ready for change," said Steve Grandizio, a mortgage company president attending Nutter's victory celebration.

"The city's at a cross-point," Grandizio said. "We can be seen as a city with high crime and decay, or we can be seen as the next great city. It's a fine line between the two."

Nutter, a former city councilman, stressed his sponsorship of government ethics legislation and proposed declaring a state of emergency in high-crime areas and allowing police to stop and frisk people suspected of carrying illegal guns.

Running second was Tom Knox, a multimillionaire businessman who spent about $10 million of his own money and vowed to remove the "for sale" sign from City Hall.

In a Keystone Poll last week, as in every other independent survey in the race, overwhelming majorities of voters said they felt Philadelphia was on the wrong track - and uniformly concerned about a rising homicide rate.

"I don't think it's a mystery: The driving forces were the loss of a sense of personal security and the pay-to-play culture," pollster Terry Madonna said.

"I think people are fed up, and they just needed someone to articulate it," Nutter said in an interview yesterday.

A lone wolf for much of his 14 years on City Council, Nutter was considered no match for a pair of heavyweights: U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, for two decades the boss of the Democratic Party, and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who had his own well-honed grassroots operation.

But Nutter made himself the anti-Mayor Street in his first series of television advertisements, reminding voters of his battles to push tax cuts and new ethics laws over the mayor's objections.

In the end, Nutter held his base among the white liberals who, polls showed, were most concerned about political reform. He won 65 percent or more of the vote in the Fifth and Eighth Wards of Center City, the Ninth Ward in Chestnut Hill, and the 27th Ward in University City.

"He ran a nearly flawless campaign," said Sam Katz, the Republican mayoral nominee in 1999 and 2003. "He was well-served by his strategy of building a base among white liberals and growing that base into the African American community."

He also won most of the city's predominantly black wards. Nutter ran first in North Philadelphia and first or a close second behind Fattah in West Philadelphia, usually getting 33 percent of the vote or more.

Nutter also did better in traditionally white wards than most previous black candidates. In the half-dozen wards that make up most of the Upper Northeast, for instance, he got 25 to 30 percent of the vote.

Knox initially surged into the campaign's lead by railing against the "backroom bosses" and insider deals. He pounded that message home with about $9 million worth of television ads, beginning in December. For more than two months, Knox's was the only voice and image on the tube.

Some analysts argued that Nutter was the ultimate beneficiary of the barrage, taking the lead after Brady and others began attacking Knox's business record, raising doubts.

"Nutter was in the right place at the right time," said Democratic consultant Howard Cain, who advised Brady. "Somebody spent $9 million arguing that reform is the central issue in the campaign, and Michael was seen as the best representative of that. People knew him. Nobody knew Knox."

Homemaker Jen Hathaway of Center City, for instance, switched to Nutter. "The more I heard about Knox, the less I liked him," she said.

In the final days, Knox used television and direct mail to attack Nutter's change credentials, pointing out that he was a former ward leader who had played his share of insider politics.

Pat Dangillo, a retired city employee from Bella Vista, said she had voted for Knox because "he's the only one who's not a politician."

Brady? "He didn't know what was going on. . . . He was the machine candidate," Dangillo said. And Nutter, she said, was a media darling. "I felt, 'You gotta get the politicians outta there.' This is the only shot we got."

This year's campaign was notable in a number of ways:

For one thing, voters appeared to discount racial politics in a town famous for it - think of former Mayor Frank Rizzo and his "vote white" slogan and Street's boast that "the brothers and sisters are running this city."

While Nutter appealed to a broad swath of white voters, Knox won nearly a fifth of the vote in predominantly black wards.

The campaign was also shaped by the city's first limit on campaign contributions, a change designed to cut down the influence of big political donors after the pay-to-play scandals. The change fueled Knox's rise because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that spending one's own cash on a campaign is a free-speech right; Knox was able to outspend everyone else.

Fattah, who led in early polls, never had a significant TV presence because he struggled to raise cash under the limits of $5,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a political committee.

"It's difficult to raise money from the most powerful when you want to help the least powerful," said Fattah, who based his campaign on a plan to lease the airport and attack poverty.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Jen Moroz, Marcia Gelbart, Michael Matza and Jennifer Lin.