Donna Frye sank into an easy chair, fed a bit of roast beef sandwich to her ancient sheepdog, Diogenes, and tried to explain how she had come to be on the verge of pulling off one of the more astounding feats in modern big-city electoral history.

"Sometimes," she said calmly, as a sun-catching quartz splashed rainbows around her living room, "events sort of overtake me."

That's how it happened when she entered politics a decade ago, becoming a clean-water activist after her husband caught a bacterial infection swimming in the Pacific Ocean here. And that seems to be what happened again this month, when the former surf shop owner and first-term council member grabbed a narrow lead in the race to become mayor of the nation's seventh-largest city, just five weeks after she entered the contest . . . as a write-in candidate.

Now, as local officials slowly certify the thousands of handwritten votes and assess an unknown number of absentee and provisional ballots, many are wondering how Frye did it. Not only did she apparently trounce two well-known candidates with comfortable spots on the ballot, but she also did so as a quintessentially Californian enviro-liberal in a traditional Republican stronghold.

Yet Frye, 52, said her potential against-all-odds victory -- which faces legal challenges even if the numbers hold up -- simply reflects the public's frustration with a worsening fiscal crisis, and the culture of secrecy that she believes caused it.

"I think part of the reason it happened is the public was so tired of the business as usual," she said. "People knew who I was. They know I'll tell them the truth."

As she spoke, the "Today" show was wrapping up a shoot in the garden of her modest hillside home, and her husband, Skip -- a former U.S. surfing champion and surfboard designer -- was packing up some old photos and videos that CNN wanted to borrow. Her campaign manager was in another room juggling more interview requests as they came in by phone.

"They put makeup on me," she said in her ingratiatingly husky tones. "I never wear it. It feels so strange."

Frye has long blond hair, a serene blue-eyed gaze and a tendency to make such campaign promises as "Bring the aloha spirit back to San Diego."

She speaks comfortably and candidly of an abusive first marriage, a battle with alcoholism, a meandering early career path as a gas station attendant and technical writer, the inspiration she found as a teenager in Barry McGuire's flower-power classic hit "Eve of Destruction."

Frye loses the mellow when she discusses the problems facing the city where she has spent most of her life since the age of 5. A deficit of nearly $2 billion in the employee pension fund and retiree health benefits budget is forcing major cuts across all city services. The city's once-sterling bond rating was downgraded sharply, and both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating.

The city's fiscal woes moved to center stage as the mayoral race got underway this year. The officially nonpartisan campaign began as a match between incumbent Dick Murphy and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, both Republicans. Frye had spent nearly three years on the City Council as something of a loner, but she suddenly found much of the electorate looking to her for guidance. She was the only member to vote against a plan last year to underfund the pension system while increasing benefits.

"There were people calling asking who I was going to vote for. As it got closer, I couldn't give them an answer," she said.

"People were saying to me they weren't going to vote. They said they were going to write me in. I said, 'Don't do that, it won't count.' " But as more of those calls kept rolling in, she began to change her mind.

When word leaked out that she was considering a write-in bid, supporters drove to her house on the city's suburban north side to sign petitions. Across town, she got a similar reception.

"It was electric," gushed her husband, a pink-faced man in a Hawaiian shirt.

"I was almost in tears," Frye said.

Thus began an impromptu campaign built largely on bumper stickers and mailings, for a total cost of about $100,000, according to campaign manager Nicole Capretz. While her opponents ran television and radio ads, Frye did not.

"She has this cult following," Capretz said. "If you walk down the street, everyone approaches her. . . . [Her opponents] think she's just a hippie, but she's wicked smart."

Frye said she caught a break early on when she realized that the city's voting system is an optical-scan method that requires voters to use pencil or pen to mark their ballots -- meaning they wouldn't have to go far out of their way to register a write-in choice. From there, she said, she simply had to focus on teaching them how to spell her name.

Frye says she was not surprised to attract such a following in a community that, with its large military population, has an image of being staunchly conservative.

"It's conservative as far as its money," she said. "Anyone who stands up to protect the public's money is going to win, regardless of social views."

If elected, she promises to pull back the curtain on how the city handles its money -- a step she says is essential to restoring not only the public's trust but also that of Wall Street.

She said she does not know yet if tax increases will be necessary to stabilize the city's budget. "I think we have to take the big [deficit] number and say, 'We can't allow this to get worse.' "

Frye's opponents complain that she had it too easy, dropping into a contentious race so late and avoiding the scrutiny that fell upon Murphy and Roberts. As of yesterday, Frye was leading in the vote count with 145,271 to Murphy's 142,157; Roberts, with 128,569 votes, dropped out of the race last week.

With absentee and provisional votes still being counted, Murphy could surpass her. Meanwhile, a Roberts supporter filed suit seeking to stop the vote count, alleging that the city charter does not allow write-in candidates. Others argue that the municipal code, which does allow write-ins, should take precedence.

It is unclear when either the vote count or the legal challenges will be resolved, but with the new mayor scheduled to be sworn in Dec. 6, Frye, if victorious, would have no down time to catch a breath or catch a wave.

Just as well, she said. "I'm a terrible surfer," she admitted. "I like reading environmental impact reports."

San Diego mayoral candidate Donna Frye, left, and Vice Mayor Toni Atkins this week denounced efforts challenging the legality of Frye's candidacy.With votes still being counted, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy is trailing Frye, a write-in candidate.