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President Barack Obama endorsed City Comptroller William Thompson for mayor Friday, providing a major boost for the Democrat’s campaign against billionaire incumbent Michael Bloomberg. The president’s endorsement had been in doubt because Mr. Thompson is an underdog in the race and White House political operatives were hesitant to risk Mr. Obama’s prestige on a candidate who could be overwhelmed on Election Day.

But a poll this week reported that Mr. Thompson trails by just 8 percentage points, 51% to 43%, after having been down by 16 points in another pollster’s survey in late September. The challenger’s increased viability, combined with a New York Times article questioning why the president had yet to endorse him, apparently moved the White House to act.

The rollout of the announcement, however, was curious: Mr. Thompson’s campaign e-mailed a statement from the candidate at 1:18 p.m., hours after Mr. Obama had been named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In order to maximize coverage of good news, campaigns typically announce it on days other than Friday, and not immediately after a larger news event, such as the Nobel Prize revelation.

Also unusual is that the campaign released no statement from the president announcing and explaining his endorsement. Mr. Thompson’s campaign referred a question about that to the White House press office, which did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

In his statement, Mr. Thompson said, “I am grateful and encouraged to receive the support of the president of the United States, especially on the day that Barack Obama is named a Nobel Prize Winner. It is a point of personal pride to receive this endorsement since I made my final decision to run for mayor of this great city while waiting on line to vote for President Obama. New Yorkers supported President Obama in historic numbers on November 4, 2008, and I look forward to that same support on November 3, 2009. I am deeply honored and thank our president for his support and confidence that I will be the next mayor of New York City.”

Mr. Thompson faces an uphill battle because Mr. Bloomberg enjoys high approval ratings and has been spending about $10 million a month on his re-election campaign since April. In all, the mayor has spent more than $65 million, all out of his own pocket, while Mr. Thompson has spent less than $5 million and despite nearly eight years in citywide office has yet to achieve high name recognition among New Yorkers.

The mayor has consistently praised Mr. Obama since he became president but Mr. Bloomberg did not endorse his candidacy in 2008 and often spoke highly of his opponent, Sen. John McCain. That likely influenced the president’s decision, which was crafted by his political advisers—primarily Patrick Gaspard, his political director. Mr. Gaspard was formerly political director for 1199 SEIU, the powerful New York health care workers union, which endorsed Fernando Ferrer over Mr. Bloomberg in 2005.

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