By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Two San Diego city councilmen, a Republican backed by the downtown establishment and a Democrat seeking to become the city's first Hispanic mayor, will compete in a runoff election early next year to replace disgraced former Mayor Bob Filner.
The stage for a runoff between Republican front-runner Kevin Faulconer and Democrat David Alvarez was firmly set on Wednesday when a second Democrat, Nathan Fletcher, conceded defeat in a special mayoral election and threw his support to Alvarez.
A total of 11 candidates ran in Tuesday's non-partisan race, which was triggered by Filner's resignation in August over a sexual harassment lawsuit, ending his brief tenure as the first Democratic mayor of California's second-largest city.
Faulconer ended up with 44 percent of the vote, falling short of the simple majority required to win outright but securing a spot for a one-on-one matchup in February against the No. 2 vote-getter.
Alvarez finished the night trailing Faulconer with 26 percent of the more than 200,000 ballots counted so far, edging out Fletcher by just over 2,600 votes.
But with some 34,500 mail-in and provisional ballots yet to be counted, the final outcome in the battle for second-place between Alvarez and Fletcher remained too close to call.
However, Fletcher, a former U.S. Marine and onetime state lawmaker with backing of several key labor unions and the high-tech industry, decided to throw in the towel and endorse his rival.
"I told Councilman Alvarez he has my full support and endorsement moving forward," Fletcher said at a hastily called news conference. "I believe he will be a good mayor."
Fletcher was a Republican until switching parties after finishing third in his 2012 bid for mayor.
Alvarez, whose platform most resembles Filner's, was elected to the city council in 2010 by largely working-class and Hispanic neighborhoods, including Barrio Logan, where he grew up. He has established a track record of fighting for those communities, often finding himself at odds with downtown interests.
Support from San Diego's Latino neighborhoods, long ignored by the city's mainstream politicians, was seen as key in elevating Filner, a progressive Democrat who served 20 years in congress, to the office of mayor last year.
Now Alvarez has a clear shot at becoming San Diego's first Hispanic elected mayor - at least since California statehood - in a city originally founded as a presidio, or military post, by the Spanish five decades before Mexican independence.
"It's taken 167 years since California's independence from Mexico to get back to the real possibility of a Latino chief executive in San Diego," said political science professor Carl Luna of San Diego Mesa College.
Filner's victory was regarded as a political turning point for a city that has typically leaned conservative, in part because of its large military and retired military presence.
Faulconer "represents the center right, which is the tradition of mayors that we've had in the past," San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Kravic said in September.
To win election, Alvarez will "have to overcome substantial downtown establishment Republican support and funding," said professor Steven Erie of the University of California at San Diego.
Turnout for the special election was low. Only about 35 percent of San Diego's 683,000 registered voters cast ballots in the race.
"Nobody in San Diego wanted to be in this situation at this time," Fletcher said on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler and Eric Walsh)