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The do-over will look a lot like the original. The standard-bearers for San Diego’s Republican and Democratic parties will square off for mayor. And the other guy is going home.

Republican City Councilman Kevin Faulconer finished a strong first place in the special election to replace disgraced Mayor Bob Filner. Faulconer led with 43.5 percent. Democratic City Councilman David Alvarez barely edged out former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, 25.6 percent to 24.3 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to the county Registrar of Voters.

Alvarez had more than 2,600 votes over Fletcher, who topped the polls at the start but dropped after crushing attacks primarily from the right. The third-place finish for Fletcher is the same fate that befell him in the 2012 mayoral primary when he finished behind the Republican and Democratic-endorsed candidates.

Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, also a Democrat, had 4.45 percent of the vote.

Faulconer and Alvarez will meet each other in an early February runoff.

There was no suspense when Faulconer, 46, entered a downtown hotel ballroom Tuesday night to cheers of victory. Three days before, his campaign put out the precise moment Faulconer was going to speak – 10:03 p.m., just the right time for the beginning of evening newscasts.

“Tonight we have shown what we are capable of,” Faulconer told the crowd. “I can’t wait to hit the ground running tomorrow.”

Faulconer’s campaign could plan such television-friendly moments because his success was a foregone conclusion. He was the lone big-name Republican in a race with multiple Democrats. That Alvarez emerged is a credit to his endorsement from the local party and the more than $1 million the region’s largest labor group put into backing him.

Before this campaign, Alvarez was just a 33-year-old first-term City Council member known by few outside his district. Tuesday night, a throng of supporters greeted his appearance at an art gallery in Logan Heights. Alvarez spoke with a hoarse voice. He said he lost it by working hard.

“I don’t want to say we are taking our city back – we haven’t had it before now – now it can be about all of us,” Alvarez said.

♦♦♦

The differences between Faulconer and Alvarez give San Diegans a clear choice in February. Faulconer sided with business and industry on big decisions in recent months – including in Council votes on affordable housing and a development blueprint for the waterfront Barrio Logan community. Alvarez sided with low-income residents and environmentalists on those same issues.

But both present their ideas in the same language. They want to improve San Diego’s neighborhoods.

This “Neighborhoods First” message is the one that catapulted Filner to office last November as the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.

In many ways, the focus on community issues rather than the budget or big buildings shows the city’s increasingly leftward march – there are almost 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. But at this point Faulconer might be better positioned for the runoff.

Democratic candidates and causes won just two of the last six citywide elections before Tuesday – in November 2008 and 2012 – when Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket and lots of people showed up to vote. The GOP won the other four, when voter turnout was lackluster.

Faulconer also benefited from the split within the Democratic Party. With all the focus on the divide between Alvarez and Fletcher, Faulconer could emphasize the neighborhood-friendly aspects of his background, such as increasing park funding in Mission Bay, and play down that he’s the darling of moneyed downtown interests. He only faced a small spell of attacks in the campaign’s final weeks.

“Kevin has been allowed to define himself, and that’s always a big strategic advantage,” said political strategist Jennifer Tierney, who worked on an independent committee for Faulconer.

Alvarez will have less than three months – with the campaign-killing holiday season in the middle – to make up almost 18 points on Faulconer.

To win, Alvarez will have to rely on the group that got him to where he is: the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Mickey Kasparian, who heads the local food and commercial workers union, knew he had to go all in for Alvarez to make him viable – $1 million in independent expenditures qualifies as all in – something he said will continue in the runoff. In last year’s election, Filner won with a wave of support from more progressive and minority communities below the city’s Interstate 8 dividing line.

“We kicked ass south of the 8,” Kasparian said. “David will do the same thing.”

But Kasparian conceded voter turnout in February won’t look anything like it did when Obama was on the ballot last November. “Not even close,” he said.

With Alvarez, Republicans get their preferred opponent.

Throughout the campaign, advertisements in San Diegans’ mailboxes from the right-wing Lincoln Club of San Diego County and others bashed Fletcher. Faulconer was downright respectful of Alvarez during debates, focusing his energies instead on Fletcher. Key figures on the right even donated to Alvarez’s campaign.

Alvarez and his supporters had no problem accepting the help, and continued their Fletcher snarking. The two sides figured they had a better shot in a more partisan runoff.

With Fletcher out of the way, look for Faulconer and Alvarez to sharpen the distinctions between them.  San Diegans now face the same decision between a left and right direction for the city as they did last November, when Filner beat Republican Carl DeMaio.

Faulconer and Alvarez have much smoother edges than last year’s candidates, but this time it’s likely a lot fewer voters will be making the choice between the two.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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