By Tony Perry

In early returns Tuesday, San Diego Councilman Kevin Faulconer appeared headed for a runoff election with either former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher or Councilman David Alvarez to succeed the disgraced Bob Filner as mayor.

While Faulconer, 46, the only Republican among the major candidates, had a sizable lead, he appeared to lack the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win the job without a runoff.

Fletcher, 36, was narrowly ahead of Alvarez, 33, a fellow Democrat. A third Democrat, former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, 64, lagged behind. There were also seven minor candidates and one write-in.

The runoff would be held early next year, possibly late January or early February. Council President Todd Gloria is the acting mayor until a successor is chosen for Filner.

Filner resigned Aug. 30 amid a flurry of accusations that he sexually harassed women. The 71-year-old former 10-term congressman, the city's first Democratic mayor in two decades, later pleaded guilty to one felony and two misdemeanor counts. Under a plea bargain with prosecutors, he will not face time in jail or prison but will be subject to home confinement for three months.

Possibly to differentiate themselves from the confrontational Filner, the major candidates to succeed him were, with some small exceptions, scrupulously polite with each other during dozens of mayoral forums as they discussed the city's needs for road repair, more police officers and rules that better encourage private-sector job growth.

While Democrats hold an increasing edge in voter registration, a low voter turnout appeared to favor Faulconer. Also, a review of the requests for early ballots indicated a strong tilt toward Republicans.

The registrar of voters predicted a voter turnout of 40 percent to 50 percent, with a large percentage of votes coming from those who received and returned early ballots. When Filner was elected a year ago as the city's first Democratic mayor in two decades, the turnout was close to 80 percent, thanks to the presidential election.

Filner was nowhere to be seen during the campaign but the civic fallout was still felt from his chaotic nine months in office and the six-week scandal that drove him to resign.

"After the turmoil of the Filner era, we're seeing two things: San Diegans preferring more bland and boring candidates than the bombastic, and an expanding embrace of apathy," said Mark Larson, a talk show host on KCBQ-AM.

Fletcher placed third in last year's mayoral primary behind Filner and former Councilman Carl DeMaio. At the time, he was an independent, after renouncing his Republican registration.

Since that loss, Fletcher has taken a position at Qualcomm Inc. and taught a class at the University of California, San Diego. He is now a Democrat.

Faulconer is finishing his second term on the council from a beach district and was a major ally of Filner's mayoral predecessor, Jerry Sanders. Alvarez is in his first term on the council from a blue-collar district south of Interstate 5.

Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said that Faulconer ran "as a centrist-moderate, deliberately distancing himself from the more conservative wing of the local GOP."

While the Republican power structure decided to rally around one candidate, Luna said, Democrats "decided to split their vote between the moderate Fletcher and the liberal Alvarez."

Like other politics watchers, Luna is disappointed at the idea of a so-so turnout.

"Pity (that) a lot of voters are going to be paying more attention to Thanksgiving and Christmas preparations than voting," he said.

(c)2013 Los Angeles Times