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A Watershed Event in S.F. : Election: Yes, the photo above is a factor. Polls show the race for mayor a tossup. Mayor Frank Jordan and former Speaker Willie Brown are facing a strong challenge from Roberta Achtenberg.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With two days to go until Tuesday’s primary election, the heated contest for mayor has become a tossup as flamboyant Assemblyman Willie Brown tries to fend off ethics charges and Mayor Frank Jordan attempts to rebound from posing nude in his shower with two radio disc jockeys.

Brown and Jordan, seeking enough votes Tuesday to qualify for a two-way runoff Dec. 12, are facing an increasingly strong challenge from civil rights lawyer Roberta Achtenberg, who has campaigned preaching a platform of clean government and neighborhood involvement.

Brown acknowledges that he is fighting for his political life and says it is very possible he could finish third behind the more conservative Jordan and the more liberal Achtenberg. Dogged by questions about moonlighting as an attorney for cocaine dealers and city developers, Brown also faces last-minute charges that he fired female staffers who filed sexual harassment claims against a Democratic assemblyman.

“I think this race is too absolutely close to call,” the former Assembly Speaker said as he shook voters’ hands at a downtown bus stop. “I never thought this was gonna be a cakewalk for me. I’ll be lucky to win.”

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On the final weekend of the campaign, all three candidates ratcheted up their efforts with rallies, mailers and precinct walking.

Brown was joined Saturday by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and an array of Democratic members of Congress and the Legislature as he made a last-minute appeal for votes. He also brought in Assembly staffers and other supporters from Sacramento who volunteered to knock on doors across the city.

During the final two weeks of the campaign, most public attention has focused on questions about the judgment exercised by Brown and Jordan--seemingly benefiting Achtenberg, who would be the city’s first lesbian mayor if she wins.

Polls show that Jordan’s campaign momentum went into a stall after his bizarre decision nine days ago to hop in the shower naked with two Los Angeles disc jockeys he had never met.

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In his effort to outpace Brown, the former police chief agreed to shower on the air with KLOS-FM personalities Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps, who came to his elegant home for a pre-Halloween interview. The stunt produced a widely circulated photo of the three naked men--judiciously cropped--that startled and amused voters.

The mayor has repeatedly explained that the shower scene shows that he is “squeaky clean” and has “nothing to hide.”

But the event has proved to be a watershed moment in the campaign and the episode has dominated the race. The San Francisco Examiner ran the picture five times in the space of a week--including three times on its front page--and is sponsoring a contest for the best photo caption. First prize is a bar of soap.

One entry: “Why Roberta gave up men.”

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At one point, the dapper Brown made his own observation: “Clothes make the man. Ask Frank Jordan.”

Jordan has been good-natured about the jokes, explaining that he was simply trying to spice up an otherwise boring race.

“Some people see me as more serious, that I might be an introvert rather than an extrovert, but now they see the other side,” Jordan explained over coffee and a slice of poundcake. “I think it’s time for Willie Brown to prove he has nothing to hide.”

Opinion polls indicate that the mayor was steadily building support until the shower scene and since then has held steady at slightly more than 30% of the vote.

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In a survey conducted by independent pollster David Binder, more than 70% of the respondents said the shower scene would not alter their vote. But of those who were affected, 80% said it would make them less likely to vote for the mayor.

“Jordan’s picture just stopped the whole momentum for him,” Binder said.

Overall, recent polls by Binder and others show that Jordan keeps a slight lead over Brown, but that Achtenberg has moved up steadily. One survey published by the San Francisco Chronicle before the shower episode placed Jordan in the lead with Brown and Achtenberg tied for second among likely voters.

Binder’s poll offered better news for Brown, showing him eight points ahead of Achtenberg. But Binder cautioned that polls often overestimate the support for candidates who, like Brown, are black because some voters will tell a pollster one thing and then vote differently.

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The fact that Achtenberg has polled well in the final stretch could affect the outcome of the race by persuading reluctant supporters that the long-shot candidate could actually win a spot in the runoff.

“San Francisco is the most politically unpredictable place in the world,” said one veteran political consultant. “People see the polls and they say, ‘She can do it.’ Willie looks vulnerable--they think, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ ”

As Jordan and Brown have pounded on each other in campaign appearances, Achtenberg has been cautious and precise, frequently reminding voters that she is a mother and often coming across as a policy wonk.

“I think we’re moving because people are responsive to my message of honest, efficient, policy-based government,” said Achtenberg, who for two years was the highest-level gay official in the Clinton Administration. “People are tired of the political rhetoric, the false promises, and they want some practical common-sense way of addressing the issues that face us.”

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As she emerges as a stronger force in the race, her foes have criticized her for leaving the Board of Supervisors halfway through her four-year term to take a job as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development--and then leaving that job after two years to run for mayor. Brown and Jordan are particularly irritated because both backed her during her heated confirmation battle for the HUD post.

But Achtenberg, relying on a solid base of support among gays and lesbians, has mobilized a large volunteer effort and distributed more than half a million pieces of campaign literature heading into the final weekend.

Brown, with his record of 31 years in the Assembly and more than 14 years as Speaker, continues to face criticism from his rivals for allying with tobacco, gambling and alcohol interests, among others.

With polls showing that the major group of undecided voters is Democratic women under age 50, Brown’s foes have also criticized him for hiring as a campaign aide a former Assembly staffer who had violated sexual harassment policies.

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But his biggest political problem may be new charges that he is insensitive to women. Both major newspapers have run stories alleging that Brown fired three women who filed sexual harassment charges against then-Assemblyman Tom Connolly of Lemon Grove.

In response, the Brown campaign said his signing of termination papers for the three women was a routine matter he performed as Speaker and that he was not involved in the decision to fire them. They also noted that Brown was responsible for instituting a “zero tolerance” policy in the Assembly.

“Sexual harassment,” Brown said, “has never had any relationship to me.”

Nevertheless, Brown acknowledges that he is worried about the effect the charges may have on voters. “In this town, that [charge] resonates,” he said. “If women decide I’m some kind of a horrible person, I’ll be in real trouble.”

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