As voters in a South Bay state Assembly district prepare to cast ballots in Tuesday's special election, the big question is whether one of the five Democratic candidates can win the vacant seat outright or whether a runoff will be needed.
Gardena Councilman Steve Bradford, who narrowly lost the Democratic primary for the 51st district seat in June 2006, jumped in early this time, raising money and locking up endorsements well before the filing period closed and while other candidates were still weighing a run.
His substantial edge in campaign cash and the backing of organized labor has led most knowledgeable observers to label him the clear front runner in what is expected to be a very low-turnout election.
Gloria Gray, an elected director of a local water board and a former Inglewood school board member, is widely viewed as Bradford's strongest competition.
But her late start appears to have hurt her chances, observers say.
"Steve got in early and sewed up all the endorsements. There was nothing left for anybody else," said attorney and political consultant Dermot Givens, who is not working for any of the candidates in this race.
"Gloria is a great candidate. If she had gotten in earlier, it would have made a difference," Givens said, mirroring a view expressed by others, "but at best all she does now is keep him from winning it in the primary."
If no candidate wins a majority Tuesday, there will be a runoff Nov. 3 between the top-finishing Democrat and the only Republican on the ballot, David Coffin.
Gray disputes Givens' assessment, contending that her large cadre of "absolutely outstanding" volunteers and her long track record in the community will pull her through.
She also contends that the fiscal meltdown in Sacramento and the paralysis of a Legislature riven by partisan warring will undercut the value of Bradford's many endorsements from the lawmakers he hopes to join in the Capitol.
Gray and another Democrat in the race, Lawndale Councilman Robert Pullen-Miles, an aide to state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), have tried to position themselves as experienced outsiders who know the political ropes but aren't beholden to members of a failed state government.
At a forum held Thursday evening by the Gardena Valley Chamber of Commerce, the four candidates who attended offered some of their ideas for fixing state government and solving its budget problems while boosting jobs, education and access to healthcare in the district.
In addition to Gray and Pullen-Miles, they were Thomas Jefferson Cares, making his first bid for public office just shy of his 21st birthday, and Mervin Leon Evans, an author, businessman, consultant and perennial candidate who usually finishes well back in the field.
Cares wants a complete overhaul of state government and Evans called for a crackdown on crime against women and children.
Pullen-Miles touted his 11 years of experience as a legislative aide as well as his council service and ended his opening remarks by telling voters, "I'm always Pullen for you."
Gray talked about her leadership and accomplishments over the years as a current member of the West Basin Municipal Water District, former president of the Inglewood school board and a former administrator with the county Health Services department as well as service on various community advisory boards.
Bradford and Coffin did not attend the forum.
Coffin, a school reform activist from Westchester and a former small business owner, faces long odds if he finds himself in a runoff.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 64% to 15% in this heavily minority, working-class district that stretches east from Westchester and Lawndale through Inglewood, Hawthorne, Gardena, some parts of Los Angeles and a few unincorporated county communities.