Despite only managing to get 43.2 percent of the vote Tuesday, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. fended off three opponents in the most serious primary challenge he has faced in a decade.

DeStefano’s victory stood in contrast to a night of celebrations by labor activists who helped a slate of 11 union-backed candidates win aldermanic seats in a campaign season marked by anti-City Hall rhetoric. But while he lost the vote in three wards to challenger Jeffrey Kerekes, and his re-election is only assured if he defeats Kerekes in the Nov. 8 general election, DeStefano’s political fortunes did not sink as low as his critics had hoped they would.

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DeStefano, who is running for a record 10th two-year term, said his failure to get a majority of the vote citywide was to be expected given the economic anxiety that prevails in the city.

“I had three credible opponents and I ran in a time when change is a powerful message,” he told reporters at a victory party at BAR on Tuesday night.

For most Yalies, the mayoral primary was the only election Tuesday in which they were eligible to vote, because, as residents of Ward 1, they had no aldermanic primary. Perhaps in part because of the lack of a heated contest in the ward, turnout at the Ward 1 polling place at the New Haven Public Library on Elm Street was far lower than anywhere else in the city.

Out of 48 total votes cast in Ward 1, DeStefano captured 28, or 58 percent.

While the student turnout was scant, interviews outside the polls revealed a wide range of opinions about the mayor: While Jess Belding ’13 said she felt it was her responsibility as a citizen to oppose DeStefano, Nate Barnett ’14 said he considers him one of the city’s truest guardians.

While his plurality assures him a capital “D” next to his name on the ballot in the general election, Kerekes, who garnered 22.7 percent of votes in the city and 12.5 percent in Ward 1, vowed Tuesday night to challenge DeStefano as an independent in November.

Kerekes’ victory in Wooster Square’s Ward 8 and East Rock’s wards 9 and 10 — along with his strong performance in wards in East Shore and Westville — suggests that his background as a budget watchdog has won him considerable support among voters concerned about keeping property taxes low.

Rebecca Turcio, who along with Kerekes founded the advocacy group New Haven Citizens Action Network in 2006, said she was not expecting Kerekes to win in the primary and that his supporters had from the beginning pinned their hopes on the general election. Kerekes’ ability to unseat DeStefano in November may depend, she said, on his ability to win over supporters of the mayor’s other two challengers, civil rights activist Clifton Graves and former alderman Tony Dawson.

“The real fight starts now,” she said outside the polls in East Rock’s Wilbur Cross High School.

On the heels of an primary campaign that culminated in the defeat of six incumbent aldermen, the mayor claimed the mantle of “change” in his victory speech. Despite his opponents’ calls for term limits and the end of an entrenched “DeStefano machine,” DeStefano said his victory nevertheless represented voters’ desire for change.

“[New Haven voters] voted for change in continuing to create jobs in this city in powerful and big ways,” he said. “They voted for being able to do all those things and still balance budgets and still be financially responsible.”

Of 12,130 total votes cast in the mayoral primary, DeStefano received 5,250, while 2,761 went to Kerekes, 2,761 went to Graves and Dawson received the other 1,943.

Cody Pomeranz contributed reporting.

Clarification: September 16, 2011

The article “DeStefano wins primary” included a reference to vote totals in the mayoral primary that was incomplete because all absentee ballots had not been counted until Wednesday afternoon. The final vote tally was: 5,716 for Mayor John DeStefano Jr.; 2,895 for Jeffrey Kerekes; 2,255 for Clifton Graves; and 2,032 for Tony Dawson.