SAN FRANCISCO -- Democrats have ruled this bastion of liberalism since the turbulent '60s, but a stronger-than-expected insurgency from further left is rattling the political establishment. In tomorrow's mayoral runoff, a scrappy Green Party challenger is within striking distance to upset a polished, well-heeled Democrat groomed for the job.
With California's Democratic Party still wobbly from its recent loss of the governorship, a defeat in San Francisco's mayoral contest would not only hand it another embarrassment, but would further underscore the growing threat from the upstart Greens, already said to have cost Democrats the White House in the 2000 presidential election.
The irony was not lost when former vice president Al Gore arrived last Tuesday to stump for Gavin Newsom, the Democrat hoping to succeed his political mentor, two-term Mayor Willie Brown.
By most accounts, it will be a close finish between Newsom and Matt Gonzalez, the Green Party member who presides over the Board of Supervisors, the legislative arm of city government of which Newsom is a member.
"If there's any place you could consider safe for Democrats, it would be San Francisco," said Rich DeLeon, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. "If a Democrat were to lose here, it would send a strong national message. It would be an embarrassment for the Democratic Party leadership."
Though the mayor's office is nonpartisan, the race has been anything but. The Democratic apparatus has invested heavily in Newsom's campaign. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, and other top California Democrats have rallied behind him.
In addition to Gore, other national Democrats have weighed in, including presidential candidates Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. The national Democratic Party has also given its advice.
The last time a San Francisco mayor was not a card-carrying Democrat was in 1964, before either candidate was even born and when the office was occupied by Democrat-turned-Republican George Christopher, best remembered for bringing the Giants baseball team from New York to San Francisco.
"In politics, party affiliation matters. Gavin Newsom has been a proud Democrat, and always has been," said his spokesman, John Shanley. "We lost Sacramento to the Republicans. We don't want to lose San Francisco to the Greens."
A Green victory in San Francisco would be the party's biggest success yet, and would have national implications. "Does it matter? Ask Al Gore," said Shanley, noting how Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned votes that presumably would have gone to Gore, particularly in Florida where Republican George W. Bush beat him by 537 votes. Nader got 97,488 votes in the state.
Gonzalez campaigners say Newsom has muddled the race with party politics.
Certainly, Democrats have seen better days in the city, which has been a crucible for liberalism and progressives. When Walter Mondale and the Democrats brought their national convention to San Francisco in 1984, nearly two-thirds of the city's registered voters identified themselves as Democrat. An official Green Party was nonexistent, and those declining to state a party affiliation accounted for 14 percent.
While Greens account for a mere 3.25 percent of the city's 461,000 registered voters, the number of San Franciscans identifying themselves as Democrats has fallen to 54 percent. Meanwhile, the number of unaffiliated voters has nearly doubled from two decades ago.
"They're trying to make this a partisan race, that we're this sort of insurgency trying to take over the town," said Ross Mirkarimi, a cofounder of California's Green Party and a spokesman for the Gonzalez campaign.
"He wants to be a great mayor for San Francisco first and a great Green second," Mirkarimi said of Gonzalez, a former Democrat who changed parties three years ago just before a runoff that won him his seat on the Board of Supervisors. "This is not about us being anybody's spoiler."
To be sure, there's a myriad of issues under debate. San Franciscans are concerned about preserving the city's character and charms. They worry about crime, mass transit, redevelopment, police, and making a living. The new mayor will have to work with lean budgets, help reinvigorate the local economy, and address public frustration over vagrancy, homelessness, and panhandling.
The two men, both in their 30s, have contrasting styles that mirror the city's differing personalities. Newsom wears the image of an urban professional and entrepreneur who knows how to buddy up with the establishment and counts among his friends billionaire Gordon P. Getty.
Newsom's grooming goes beyond his Armani suits and slicked-back hair. Six years ago, Brown handpicked Newsom, 36, to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors. Ever since, political observers say, Newsom has been positioning himself as Brown's heir apparent.
Gonzalez, 38, is a self-styled bohemian accustomed to rumpled suits. A former public defender with a law degree from Stanford University, he portrays himself as a political outsider and reformer. But he has gotten support from several prominent Democrats, among them former mayor Art Agnos and fellow supervisor Tom Ammiano, who finished third in the crowded Nov. 4 balloting.
Newsom won 42 percent of the vote -- double that of Gonzalez but short of the simple majority needed to prevent a runoff. Since then, the race has tightened, according to recent polls that suggest Newsom has a slight edge.
Newson, who has taken in some $4 million, has outraised and outspent Gonzalez 10 to 1.
Republicans outside of San Francisco are watching the race "with some glee," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst.
"A Green victory could energize Democratic liberals across the country in a way that makes it harder for the Democratic Party to fight for the political center," he said.