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Runoff Is Big Question as Mayor's Race Nears Finish

February 23, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

After a generally lackluster campaign that became acrimonious in its last week, the major question remaining as the San Diego mayoral primary enters its final three days is whether voters will know Tuesday or have to wait 3 1/2 months to learn who their next mayor will be.

With recent polls showing front-runner Maureen O'Connor steadily moving toward the 50% mark needed for outright victory Tuesday, the former San Diego city councilwoman and her two major opponents are bombarding voters with 11th-hour pitches. And their campaigns are launching get-out-the-vote blitzes that could determine who serves the remaining 2 1/2 years in the term of former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who resigned last year after his felony conviction.

While the O'Connor camp strives for a decisive victory that once appeared both mathematically and politically improbable in the 13-candidate race, San Diego City Councilman Bill Cleator and former Councilman Floyd Morrow find themselves in the political equivalent of a last-minute goal-line defense--fighting not so much for their own benefit as to deny victory to their opponent.

"The stakes are very different," said Dick Sykes, O'Connor's consultant and a partner in the New York-based firm of Dresner-Sykes. "For us, the worst thing that could happen is that we end up in a runoff. That's not like facing the possibility that your political career might self-destruct in your face. We have a chance to win it and the best they can do is temporarily stop us."

Newspaper and television polls released within the past week show O'Connor ahead of Cleator by a 2-to-1 margin with between 43% and 49% of the vote, with Morrow running a distant third and enough undecided votes to push her over 50%. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will compete in a June 3 runoff.

Determined not to repeat a cardinal error from her unsuccessful 1983 mayoral campaign--when she spoke glowingly of her prospects for outright victory in the primary and then fell embarrassingly short--O'Connor persistently downplays her chances of surpassing the necessary 50% margin.

"I still think it's very doubtful," said O'Connor, who would be the city's first woman mayor. "I don't believe polls. I'm almost afraid to believe them. I'm waiting for the poll on Feb. 25."

Sykes also noted that the 10 long shots on the ballot will "drain away" votes from the major contenders, increasing the difficulty of attaining a 50%-plus victory. Two write-in candidates also are competing in the race. In addition, the name of acting Mayor Ed Struiksma also will appear on the ballot, even though he withdrew from the mayoral race amid controversy over his filing of inaccurate city-reimbursed expense accounts.

Cleator and Morrow, meanwhile, claim that their own private polls show a much closer race and insist that, in Morrow's words, "this thing is still up for grabs--you betcha!" However, in contrast to O'Connor's outside chance at complete victory Tuesday, her two competitors have to be content with the more modest goal of simply hoping to qualify for a runoff so that they can survive to fight another day.

"I really think the final 72 hours are going to be critical," said Cleator, who finished third behind O'Connor and Hedgecock in the 1983 mayoral primary to elect a successor to Pete Wilson. "A lot's going to happen during that time."

In their final major joint appearance of the campaign, the three leading candidates will participate in an hourlong forum to be televised live at 6 o'clock tonight on KCST-TV (Channel 39). Two previously taped forums also are scheduled to be shown on KPBS-TV (Channel 15) tonight and Monday; in the first, the three major candidates will appear in a one-hour program at 7 o'clock tonight, while nine of the 10 long shots on the ballot will join them in a 90-minute show at 10 p.m. Monday.

Amid projections of a very low voter turnout and polls showing a large percentage of undecided voters, the candidates and their top strategists agree that the televised forums, combined with the effectiveness of their respective get-out-the-vote efforts, could have a dramatic effect on the race's outcome.

"Those TV debates could really swing the (vote) numbers around," Morrow said. "I think a lot of people who haven't paid much attention to the race up to now are going to make their decisions based on those shows."

An equally important factor, the candidates acknowledge, will be how well their staffs execute one of the fundamental parts of any political campaign--getting their respective supporters to the polls on Tuesday.

"Get out the vote--that's the name of the game now," the 39-year-old O'Connor said. "This is one of those elections where every single body, every one of them, is important."

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