Friday, Sept. 21, 2007 | It didn’t seem like a sure thing from the start. Yes, Mayor Jerry Sanders projects himself as a card-carrying Republican and voiced his disapproval for same-sex marriage before.

But he didn’t have to veto the City Council’s decision to support another city’s effort to legalize gay marriage. He could’ve chosen to simply not sign the measure, allowing it to become official without his support or veto. After all, some of the mayor’s top advisors and political allies are gay. And it was known, but not publicized, that his daughter is a lesbian, too. He’d ridden in gay pride parades since his days as police chief and can be quite moderate on social issues.

Sanders did articulate his intention to veto the measure, though, Tuesday. He then changed his mind a day later with a teary address and a personal epiphany.

On Thursday, Sanders awoke a national figure.

Salon.com featured him in its lead story, titled, “The Courage of Jerry Sanders.” The 24-hour news stations gobbled it up. Newspapers and gay-lifestyle websites from around the globe ran wire stories or commentaries about the mayor’s emotional decision. National programs asked him to appear on television; he declined.

But back here in San Diego, he found himself in the crosshairs of his own party, as conservative Republicans took aim at the man their party quietly bestowed an early 2008 endorsement upon months ago.

Tony Krvaric, the Republican Party of San Diego County’s chairman, said it’s too early to tell whether the reversal will impact the party’s endorsement of the incumbent mayor, whose fiercest known competition comes from the right in fellow Republican Steve Francis.

Krvaric said he anticipates that the reconsideration of the Sanders endorsement will be brought up at the next meeting of the party’s central committee, which handles endorsements, on Oct. 8.

“Clearly there’s going to be a reaction from the party,” said Matt Adams, a local building industry lobbyist and a member of the central committee. “What he supports is not part of the party’s platform, and he’s moving against the stream on this one.”

Adams, who orchestrated Sanders’ early endorsement, said he’s sticking with the mayor.

He’s among the party members who characterized the buzz around the same-sex issue as a distraction, but he and other party insiders acknowledged that it could become a deal-breaker for social conservatives, which still control a significant portion of the central committee.

“Personally, I’m profoundly disappointed. But just because he and I differ on this, I would like him to focus on larger issues of pulling the city of San Diego out of bankruptcy and getting it on stable financial footing,” said Mike McSweeney, a general contractor and central committee member.

The mayor had to assume his reversal would draw the scorn of the local Republican Party, which remains devoutly conservative on social issues, and appears to have been advised as much by his political consultants.

Tom Shepard, Sanders’ lead political advisor, wouldn’t share the precise advice he gave the mayor when they discussed his reversal, but did reveal that the mayor didn’t heed the counsel.

“I’ll just say that I respect the decision that he made and I don’t expect others to always agree with or follow my advice,” Shepard said.

Without a declared Democrat in the race for now, Sanders faces the most competition from the right in the independently wealthy Francis, who would likely spend several million dollars of his own money in the election. The business executive has pushed the mayor to the right in the past, forcing Sanders in the 2005 election to definitively rule out tax increases to help solve the city’s deep financial troubles.

Still, Sanders could very well have scored points with as many moderates as he lost with conservatives. That was certainly the case for some who admire Sanders the man but had been dissatisfied by Sanders the calculated politician.

“I think this is the first indication to me that this lion has a heart. I don’t think it was a staged event. I think he really did what he felt, and goddammit, if he would’ve started doing that two years ago he wouldn’t have any competition,” said San Diego State University professor emeritus Glen Sparrow. “He has good instincts, but he has bad advice.”

The professor hopes this is a sign of things to come. “It’s unfortunate he’s gotten himself into a hole. He might have stumbled onto a position here,” Sparrow said.

In the end, the political drama also gave rise to some of the first pointed barbs of what is now increasingly shaping up to be an intriguing election season — a period that in many ways kicked off Thursday with a Sanders party and Francis opening an exploratory committee.

When asked about Francis being Sanders’ strongest competition at this moment, Shepard replied:

“Francis is a credible candidate only because he has unlimited funds. He lacks any substance I think most people see him as a rather shallow opportunist. So for that reason I don’t think his candidacy ultimately has much prospect.”

Francis shot back: “Sounds like Tom Shepard-speak. He has a history, a long history, of coming out early and trying to trash opponents.”

Pressure came from Republican circles outside of San Diego, too. On the conservative blog redcountysandiego.com, consultant and state party vice chairman Jon Fleischman wrote: “Perhaps we now should look to the San Diego County GOP, and what they may do in light of Sanders’ ‘evolution’ on such a key issue of our day. Maybe its [sic] time for the GOP to ‘evolve’ their position on the Mayoral race.”

However, Francis could have problems of his own attracting conservatives en masse. He was able to narrowly win the party’s endorsement in the 2005 primary after social conservatives lambasted the participation of Francis and his wife, Gayle, in gay causes. Gayle Francis was involved in the production of “The Laramie Project,” which depicts the story of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming man executed in a hate crime.

And the words fueled by Wednesday’s events weren’t all caustic.

“I think people that are open-minded and moderate are going to look at it and say, ‘Jesus, he did what he thought was right. And that’s what we keep asking people to do,’” Sparrow said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue and Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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