The scene is a dark, wood-paneled room at the Las Vegas Club, a downtown pleasure palace and casino, a respectable joint that has seen better days. They're serving bloody slabs of beef and asking questions about the Mob.

But wait. This is the new family-friendly Vegas, and the guy asking the questions is a Rotarian, not a gumshoe from the FBI. And the man on the podium answering?

He is Oscar B. Goodman, who on Tuesday seems likely to be elected mayor of Las Vegas.

Goodman, 59, has spent his career in Vegas as a criminal defense attorney, and on his client roster, there are, as Goodman prefers to put it, "some unpopular people," most notably Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, the alleged Mafia enforcer whom Goodman kept out of jail.

Tony the Ant was the model for the Joe Pesci character in Martin Scorsese's film "Casino," in which Goodman plays himself: "Mouthpiece for the Mob," as he was dubbed by a "60 Minutes" episode.

"That was a mistake," Goodman says, referring to his appearance in the movie. "I should have read the script." Indeed, his fictionalized client came off not as a good fellow but as a psychotic. The real Tony the Ant was beaten and buried in an Indiana cornfield.

Las Vegans seem ready to accept the flamboyant, gregarious Goodman as their next leader, as he proposes to tackle the city's problems with all the energy and focus that he used to defend Tony the Ant.

The latest polls, taken by Mason-Dixon, put Goodman almost 20 percentage points ahead of city council member Arnie Adamsen, whose campaign is penniless and whom a local cartoonist depicted as Forrest Gump.

Indeed, at campaign appearances last week, voters insisted on congratulating Goodman and calling him Mr. Mayor.

"Not yet! Not yet!" Goodman kept saying. "My biggest fear is apathy. Go to the polls. Vote!"

Initially, this bet was no sure thing. The odds were against Goodman. When he first announced, the Chamber of Commerce types worried about the city's image and could imagine the headlines: Vegas Marries the Mob. The Las Vegas Review-Journal ran an editorial with an "anybody but Oscar" message.

But Vegas likes a winner.

After he almost clinched victory outright in May, with 49 percent of the vote, the city's power brokers came around, and the casinos climbed aboard the Goodman bandwagon.

At the Rotary Club luncheon, Goodman, who has refused to go negative in his campaign, speaks of his hopes of luring non-polluting high-tech industries and "think tanks" to Vegas; of alleviating traffic jams; of rejuvenating the frayed downtown with chic coffee bars and tony bookstores; of fostering construction of low-cost housing for the armies of casino employees.

Still, the past rears its head. One Rotarian pushes Goodman about his statements (taken out of context, Goodman says) that he believes "there is no Mob."

"Your associates and past mean something to me," the Rotarian says. Defend yourself.

And Goodman does: "I do not apologize for one day of my life." He says the justice system, and the country, are better off because he vigorously defended his clients against "overzealous" prosecutors and FBI agents.

Goodman promises to be a full-time mayor, to transform an essentially weak and ceremonial position into a bully pulpit. If they elect him, Goodman says, Las Vegans will be paying $48,000 a year "for a lawyer that would cost millions, with all due respect to myself."

It is one of the curiosities of Vegas, however, that the mayor does not have jurisdiction over the famous Las Vegas Strip, where all the big new casino resort theme parks are located. It is controlled by Clark County. Someday there might be consolidation, Goodman says, but not yet, not now.

First, he must win the runoff election.

The city seems ready. In letters to the editor of the Review-Journal, and in interviews at Goodman events, many voters compare him to Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (Reform), saying that the electorate hungers for new voices and personalities, be they former wrestlers or mob lawyers.

In one astute observation, Mike Schaefer wrote to the local paper: "Most of America thinks that the Mafia controls our town, and maybe electing Oscar would prove to them that they are right; but they'll come here in droves, with money, to see what it's like."

"People were initially sort of aghast," said Michael Bowers, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, referring to Goodman's run. "But they've come around."

The casinos are now run by corporations, and guys like Tony the Ant and his ilk have been shoved aside, into the darker corners of loan sharking, prostitution and drug sales.

The world has changed. At a reception for Goodman at the Italian American Dinner Club, where Paul Elia crooned the oldies as a "Sinatra stylist," one supporter in silk shirt and gold chains, a scotch and soda in his hand, who could have made a cameo appearance in "Casino" as a "made guy," asked Goodman what he planned to do about schools.