The nation's seventh-largest city held its second mayoral election in nine months Tuesday, trying to fill the void created when the former leader resigned in scandal and his interim replacement was convicted of corruption.
Donna Frye, a maverick council member and surf shop owner, led in early results with 47 percent of the absentee vote. She nearly won a long-shot write-in campaign for mayor last year.
Two Republicans -- former police chief Jerry Sanders and businessman Steve Francis -- were dueling for second place, with Sanders at 27 percent in the early returns and Francis with 23 percent.
If no candidate receives a majority, the top two vote-getters go to a Nov. 8 runoff.
The winner will enter a City Hall left in shambles after several scandals and problems that have tarnished San Diego's image and threatened it with bankruptcy.
Former mayor Dick Murphy announced his resignation soon after being reelected in November, saying he wanted to give San Diego a fresh start after his disputed election battle with Frye. His departure came amid a widening federal investigation of the city's pension fund.
Three days after Murphy left, his interim replacement, Michael Zucchet, lost the job. A jury convicted Zucchet of corruption charges for taking payments from a strip-club owner in a failed scheme to overturn a ban on patrons touching dancers at nude and topless bars.