The early lines of attack in San Diego's special-election mayoral race now seem to point in one direction -- toward apparent frontrunner Nathan Fletcher.
Leaders of both the local Republican and Democratic parties see Fletcher as a shameless opportunist.
And on behalf of their respective candidates, Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez, their behind-the-scenes campaign strategy is to focus on Fletcher’s sudden political lane changes.
"Wherever you see polling results -- regardless of the methodology -- and there's a frontrunner, the frontrunner is going to get attacked,” says political consultant Chris Crotty. “Somebody's going to want to pull those numbers down -- and that's seemingly what's occurring right now."
Crotty, a campaign adviser to Democrat Mike Aguirre, says the former city attorney’s distant fourth-place polling numbers argue against any plans to engage in anti-Fletcher campaigning.
But, Crotty said in an interview Wednesday, 'going negative' makes sense for the teams behind Alvarez and Faulconer, who might welcome a runoff against the lesser-known and lesser-funded Alvarez – assuming their efforts can help eliminate Fletcher in the November 19th balloting involving 11 candidates.
"It's easier to do negative stuff to keep other people home, and bring in your relatively small percentage of voters that you need to get into the runoff,” Crotty explained, “ than it is to 'go positive' and work hard to get those voters and pull them to the polls."
As for Faulconer, says Crotty: "He could very likely make it into the runoff with just his Republican votes alone."
But while Team Fletcher may still have time to ‘go positive’ and refrain from sniping at Faulconer and Alvarez, “if he starts bleeding off votes from the negative attacks, he'll have no choice but to hit back,” in Crotty’s view.
Other political observers say Fletcher’s challenge is to raise enough money to offset the negatives stemming from his 18-month odyssey from Red State to Blue State country.
"The problem for him, as the problem always has been going back to the last election,” says Liam Dillon, who covers politics and government issues for Voice of San Diego, “is whether the kind of strong partisan voters -- the people who show up in primary elections -- will vote for a guy, no matter what party he is, who's always been sort of middle-of-the-road."
But so-called 'hit-piece mailers produced by Fletcher's critics portray “middle-of-the road” as just a blip on a fast track from far right to far left to Fletcher.
Still, Fletcher's cross-over appeal to both powerful business and labor union interests figures to bring in big bucks to re-shape his image and promote an over-arching message.
Can his considerable oratorical skills and the in-person ‘presence’ he exudes at campaign rallies capture audiences at candidate debates and forums?
"I bet you there's a reluctance among his team to debate,” says Voice of San Diego CEO and columnist Scott Lewis: “Not just because he's a frontrunner, but because this is going to make for some awkward settings and awkward positions. But he needs to somehow twist that so it's a more confident situation -- something he's in charge of, as opposed to something he's constantly fending off."
There's a school of thought that Fletcher should have sat out this special election and run in the 2016 mayoral race – all the better to pay Democratic Party dues and buff credentials as a team player.
But he did win a sort of consolation prize Tuesday night, while failing to keep a 60 percent majority of Democratic Central Committee members from endorsing Alvarez.
Party leaders, after loud, heated debate, agreed to back any other Democrat who reaches a runoff if Alvarez doesn't.