Friday, October 28, 2005 | The leading candidate goes negative, accusing his opponent of lying to voters, but providing scant evidence. The trailing candidate has a press conference to bring attention to her call for a tax increase, and then says the dogs at one of her supporters’ businesses are going to vote for her.

In a city stuck in an unfathomable political and financial morass, surprise is an outdated emotion.

Still, less than two weeks away from an election in which San Diego will choose who it wants to lead it out of its problems, the tactics employed by both campaigns in the waning days conjure questions among some of the town’s political observers.

The city has basically been engaged in a mayoral election since late 2003, when competitors started lining up to challenge former Mayor Dick Murphy’s bid for a second term. Murphy won, but stepped down in July under the weight of a financial crisis, ongoing investigations and court challenges to his November 2004 victory.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye became a local and national media darling in that election, boosted by a populist, anti-establishment write-in campaign that would have handed her the victory absent a court ruling invalidating more than 5,000 votes in her favor.

However, her campaign this general election has lacked the same appeal and created none of the buzz. She has instead focused on what was her perceived weakness – fiscal issues and business prowess. Nearly every campaign event she has held since the July 26 primary has focused on her financial plan and the accompanying calculations. She is considered to be losing ground to former police Chief Jerry Sanders.

By attempting to cover her weaknesses, she has essentially abandoned what has been her strength: utilizing free media, focusing on issues of open government and railing against the powers that created San Diego’s political and fiscal ruin.

“Why isn’t she hammering Sanders as the establishment candidate? This is absolutely crazy,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Sanders has the backing of many of Murphy’s former supporters and others considered to be part of the downtown establishment, such as lobbyists. However, to date, her campaign has done little to underscore one of the biggest differences observers see between the two candidates’ supporters.

But her campaign has felt different this year absent her normal themes.

Some reporters, who have regular communication with Frye and her aides, weren’t informed when she held her kick-off rally to start the primary election, leaving them to read about it in a local newspaper the next day.

“It could be that she’s not getting good advice,” Erie said. “I think she’s getting pretty good advice on her financial plan. When you’ve got (attorney) Pat Shea and (UCSD economics professor) Ross Starr, those are some of the sharpest minds in San Diego. But politically, she’s not getting it.”

Paul Worlie, a veteran national Democratic strategist, left the campaign quietly weeks ago. Aides say he left because campaign staff was asked to take a pay cut and Worlie chose not to stay.

Equally puzzling to observers was Sanders’ choice Tuesday to call a press conference and accuse Frye of fibbing to voters on her pension record. However, under scrutiny, few of his accusations appeared to have much meat to them.

Candidates normally reserve such campaigning if they are trailing or locked in a tight campaign.

“Sanders’ campaign is interesting, you would think they would play it a little safer … but they’re not taking any chances so they’re trying to land body blows every day from now until Election Day,” said John Dadian, Republican strategist and consultant.

Erie was less gracious, calling the move unnecessarily dirty politics.

The former police chief’s stance on taxes confused even some members of the local media, who believed he was against all taxes until last week explaining in further detail his tax ideology.

And while Frye has essentially dedicated her campaign to the precise numbers of her financial plan, Sanders’ plan has quietly mutated since its release in September. He has recently identified new savings and revenue increases in the tens of millions of dollars and added them to the financial plan on his Web site.

Meanwhile, many of the numbers he has deemed unworkable that were part of his original plan remain on his Web site, giving the impression they are still part of the recovery plan. This includes pension savings of $15.7 million and $6.4 million annually.

But perhaps the most important figures in the race relate to fund raising, not fiscal recovery.

The most recent campaign disclosures released Thursday show that Sanders has nearly tripled the fund-raising efforts of Frye. In total, he has raised about $1.2 million to fund his campaign, whereas Frye has raised $487,000.

Sanders’ fund raising in the last month nearly eclipsed Frye’s total through both the primary and the general election.

Money has already made a difference in the race. Sanders began airing two television advertisements last week critical of Frye’s record on the council. The ad cost $15,000 to produce and the campaign bought $100,000 of airtime in the first week, a campaign aide said.

Frye chose to allocate funds to different efforts, an aide said. Her campaign has funneled nearly all of its campaign cash into mail pieces, a more cost-effective endeavor for campaigns on tight budgets.

“The strength of our campaign is the people on the ground,” Frye said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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