Oceanside City Councilman John MacDonald was elected to the 5th District seat on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, defeating Escondido lawyer Clyde Romney in a race to succeed two-term Supervisor Paul Eckert.
MacDonald, the former president of MiraCosta College in Oceanside, had a strong lead over Romney in preliminary returns.
The two candidates were vying to replace Eckert, who lost his bid for a third term on the board when he finished third to MacDonald and Romney in the June primary.
The candidates, mindful that the winners in the 5th District primary race did not emerge until the final precincts were counted, were reluctant to claim victory or concede defeat Tuesday night.
"You don't make predictions based on absentee ballots, but it's nice to be ahead," MacDonald said early on. "If this trend continues, I'll be very, very pleased."
Romney clung to optimism even as the early returns favored MacDonald.
"We're not going to panic," he said at one point. But Romney, who had planned to move from his Escondido campaign headquarters to downtown San Diego early in the evening, kept postponing those plans as the results showed MacDonald widening his lead.
Tuesday's voting ended a 10-month campaign that was waged mainly through direct mail advertisements and the candidates' personal appearances at more than 50 forums in mobile home parks, country clubs and civic centers across North County.
The campaign was a friendly one until the final two weeks, when each candidate tried to portray the other as more likely to permit rapid development in the district, which stretches from Encinitas to Orange County on the coast and inland to the Imperial County line.
But growth was not nearly as large an issue in the general election campaign as it might have been had either MacDonald or Romney faced Eckert. Both camps had set their primary election hopes on finishing second to Eckert, whom they considered a relatively easy target in growth-conscious North County, where he had become known as a politician friendly to developers.
With Eckert out of the running and MacDonald and Romney both calling for stricter controls on growth, that issue, so important in the primary, suddenly seemed moot. Without a major issue around which to rally, the campaign turned instead to a contrast of personal styles.
MacDonald, 65, based his campaign strategy on the theme that his statesmanlike, low-key approach was more in tune with the partly rural district than Romney's more outspoken style. MacDonald, who moved to Oceanside to stay in 1949, tried to portray Romney, who has lived in North County for most of the past 15 years, as an inexperienced upstart.
Romney, 43, tried to portray MacDonald as "too nice" for the job, saying the district needed an aggressive supervisor who would be willing to work long and hard to represent North County on the board.
Because advertising on the county's largest radio and television stations is expensive and reaches far more people than can vote in the district-only race, both campaigns spent most of their money on direct mail and newspaper advertising.
Romney spent about $69,000 on the general election race, much of it going in the final week to three mailers targeted at 50,000 likely voters. The pieces stressed Romney's stands on growth and immigration and featured testimonials from individuals and groups.
It was Romney's return to the growth issue as a theme that finally erased the friendly aura that had marked most of the campaign. After Romney held a press conference to attack MacDonald's record on growth as an Oceanside city councilman, MacDonald counterattacked, claiming that a report released by Romney contained several errors that showed his lack of knowledge on planning issues.
In the final week of the campaign, MacDonald, sensing that many voters perceived him to be a Democrat, used some of the estimated $62,000 he raised to send a mailing to 40,000 Republicans contrasting his record with Romney's. The piece portrayed MacDonald as an advocate of growth management and pointed out that Romney had worked for law firms associated with contractors and developers.
Romney got a boost when the county Deputy Sheriff's Assn. spent $30,600 on his behalf. MacDonald protested, contending that the independent expenditure violated the candidates' pledges to accept contributions of no more than $1,000 from individuals associated with any one company or group.
Times staff writer Bill Ritter contributed to this story.