Newton: Paths to victory -- or defeat -- in the L.A. mayor's race

Governing requires vision, competence and administrative know-how. But none of that matters if a candidate never gets the chance to govern. Do the four leading contenders in the race for Los Angeles mayor have plausible strategies for getting themselves elected? Here, in alphabetical order, is how each might pull it off — or fail.

Eric Garcetti

How he wins: Most of the early polling suggests that Garcetti and Wendy Greuel are in a statistical dead-heat for the lead, with each drawing just north of 30% of the electorate in the first round. For each, the challenge will be to deliver that vote in March and then build on it for the May runoff.

Garcetti will need to concentrate on making a strong showing across West Los Angeles, where he will appeal to liberals; on picking up Latino and African American votes in South Los Angeles; and on consolidating his natural strengths on the Eastside, where his Latino heritage (on his father's side), fluent Spanish and strong labor support give him entree.

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Latino voters are particularly important to Garcetti, and particularly hard to predict in this election. No matter how much Garcetti points to his Mexican American roots, it's impossible to imagine him generating the same enthusiasm among those voters that Antonio Villaraigosa did. Still, Latino voting strength is on a long march; if Latinos end up composing more than a quarter of this year's voters and Garcetti carries them by a solid margin, they could easily form the core of his victory.

How he loses: Garcetti argues that he's a clear-eyed steward of City Hall, emphasizing his role in winning concessions from city unions on pensions. But if his opponents can successfully portray him as a tool of those unions, government critics could coalesce around his opponents in March, or his opponent in a May runoff, and sink him.

Wendy Greuel

How she wins: Greuel believes she'll be facing Garcetti in the runoff, and if she's right, her natural move is to build support in the Valley, where Republican backers of Kevin James might turn to her once he's out. Beyond that, Greuel sees an opportunity among African Americans, who may gravitate to her if they no longer have Jan Perry to support.

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That's a wobbly coalition; it served James Hahn once, then fell apart on him. But Greuel might be able to construct a new version. She contends that conservatives will never rally to Garcetti — a plausible assertion — and she believes her past association with Mayor Tom Bradley will help persuade blacks to take her seriously.

Her current job as the city's controller also helps. Yes, she's an insider, but her audits of Los Angeles government give her regular opportunities to challenge the way the city operates.

Finally, her status as the runoff's only woman, if it comes to that, may generate additional enthusiasm around the possibility of electing Los Angeles' first female mayor.

How she loses: Greuel's balancing act is the trickiest of this campaign. She wants to lure moderates and conservatives away from James, but she can't risk alienating the far-more-plentiful liberals. Her downfall could be that appealing to one group pushes away the other.

Kevin James

How he wins: James faces a brutal fact of political demography. As of last year, the city's registered voters included 992,054 Democrats and 285,953 Republicans. His challenge, then, is to run solidly among Republicans but also move well beyond that fairly small base.

To do that, James needs to run more as an outsider than as a conservative, attempting to galvanize and unify the varied forces that are unhappy with City Hall. That's a fairly rich vein, so he has plenty to work with. What makes it hard, though, is that those looking for change aren't necessarily looking for a Republican to make it.

James' backers point to Republican Richard Riordan's win in 1993, and it does offer some precedent. Then, an unhappy electorate destabilized by the 1992 riots shed party identification and elected the man who billed himself as "tough enough to turn L.A. around."

Like Riordan, James is socially moderate. Moreover, he's openly gay and firmly in the center of most polarizing issues. His victory would depend on City Hall critics believing that he would upend the status quo while also reassuring moderates that he would not be the engine of conservative upheaval.

How he loses: Assuming he's in a runoff with either Garcetti or Greuel, it's hard to see how the supporters of the loser would gravitate to James in a runoff. Persuading them will take money, which he's struggling to raise. He's being helped by an independent expenditure campaign waged by a conservative group, but relying on that kind of money carries risks in a city as liberal as Los Angeles.

Jan Perry

How she wins: Perry's best chance of threading the needle and making it into the runoff is to convince small business owners and beleaguered homeowners that she is the person best suited to restoring the city's financial stability.

Then, presumably in a runoff with Greuel or Garcetti, she would need to supplement her African American base with business and Jewish support (she is Jewish), as well as bits and pieces of the Valley (particularly against Garcetti).

Perry's is a long-shot campaign, but she does have some strengths: a base in South Los Angeles, a comfortable style on the stump and, arguably, a more business-friendly approach than Garcetti or Greuel.

How she loses: For Perry, everything has to break just right. Her pro-business pitch is complicated by her support for a pay raise to city workers that deepened the city's current troubles (Garcetti and Greuel supported it too). Her support for development in her district alienated some in labor. And what some enjoy about her candor, others see as an off-putting tendency to badger and bully. In order to win, Perry, like James, probably needs one of the front-runners to blunder.

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