SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two Democrats were locked in a tight battle Tuesday to advance to a runoff against a Republican city councilman in the race to replace disgraced Bob Filner as San Diego mayor.
Kevin Faulconer led a field of 11 candidates with 44.2 percent of the vote, giving Republicans a chance to recapture an office they held for much of the last four decades and an opportunity for a rare win leading a major American city.
Nathan Fletcher, an executive at wireless technology titan Qualcomm Inc. and former state assemblyman, had 24.7 percent. David Alvarez, a first-term city councilman, had 24.6 percent.
If no one wins a majority, the top two finishers advance to a runoff.
Faulconer said he was "halfway there" in his quest to lead the nation's eighth-largest city.
"Tonight we have shown what we are capable of and I can't wait to hit the ground running tomorrow," he told supporters. "Everybody did such a great job. We'll give you an hour off tonight and then we'll be ready to get going."
Alvarez told reporters in a hoarse voice that he was convinced he would advance to the next round.
"It's going to be a little bit longer until we can actually declare victory but I am certain that we will be doing that," he said.
Fletcher, who watched a tenuous lead slip as results trickled in, told supporters he was "cautiously optimistic."
"I believe in the end we will prevail. I believe we will but we aren't going to know for a few hours," he said.
Filner, the city's first Democratic leader in 20 years, resigned less than nine months into a four-year term after nearly 20 women — including a retired Navy rear admiral and a San Diego State University dean — publicly identified themselves as targets of his unwanted advances, including kissing, groping and requests for dates. He pleaded guilty last month to one felony count of false imprisonment and two misdemeanor counts of battery for his behavior toward women during his brief time in office.
Filner, a former 10-term congressman, was barely mentioned in campaign mailers or televised debates. But the major candidates have adopted his successful campaign mantra of pouring more money into neglected neighborhoods, promising to repair crumbling streets and sidewalks and faster fire and ambulance response times.
"Nobody is talking about (Filner) but they're all using his narrative of neighborhoods first," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. "They're all talking the talk, but the question is whether they will walk the walk."
Making the Filner debacle a campaign issue carries risk for Republicans because members of the disgraced former mayor's own party were first to expose his behavior, and national and local party leaders, including Alvarez, quickly demanded that he resign, Erie said. Faulconer also has little to gain by highlighting his Republican credentials in an increasingly Democratic city, he said.
Democrats hold a 13-point advantage over Republicans in voter registration in San Diego. Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney by 25 points among city voters in last year's presidential election.
Faulconer, 46, announced his bid after about 30 Republican leaders and their allies invited him and other potential contenders to the La Jolla living room of a prominent developer, and the group decided to coalesce around him. During his seven years on the City Council, the mild-mannered former public relations executive was a close ally of Mayor Jerry Sanders, Filner's moderate Republican predecessor. He made one of his biggest splashes by supporting a ban on alcohol consumption on city beaches after a Labor Day melee in 2007 in his oceanfront district.
Fletcher, 36, has eluded easy definition, becoming a Democrat in May, barely a year after bolting the Republican Party to become an independent. He was endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and several law enforcement labor unions.
Alvarez, 33, was backed by the San Diego County Democratic Party Central Committee and the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the largest coalition of organized labor.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.