LOS ANGELES -- He's a Rhodes scholar. She's UCLA. He can burn up the piano keys. She loves to watch her son playing soccer. He could become Los Angeles' first Jewish mayor; she would be the first woman elected to the job.

Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, rival Democrats headed for a May 21 runoff, would put a different stamp on the top office in the nation's second most populous city. But despite the contrasts, what really stands out about them is how much they are alike.

Both come to the race with left-leaning pedigrees, roots in the San Fernando Valley, where each grew up, and years of experience working the hallways and committee rooms inside City Hall. A key challenge for both will be standing out and connecting with voters who supported someone else in the primary, or didn't go to the polls Tuesday.

"In order to win the election, you have to change people's minds," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

In the runoff "the temperature will get higher and some of it will be about personal qualities, because the philosophical ones are not so obvious" between them, he added.

That was evident Wednesday, as both candidates went on the attack.

Greuel depicted her rival as a creature of a City Hall bureaucracy, resistant to change. Garcetti suggested Greuel would answer to unions and others who helped bankroll her campaign.

Garcetti, 42, a city councilman, and Greuel, 51, the city controller, easily outdistanced their rivals Tuesday after a lackluster election snubbed by many voters.

Garcetti topped the field, carrying 33 percent of the vote. Since no candidate collected the majority needed to win outright, he will face Greuel in the runoff. She had 29 percent of the vote, according to preliminary returns.

Both candidates quickly began targeting voters left behind by candidates now out of the race.

They include conservatives who supported Republican Kevin James, and women and blacks who were part of the base for Councilwoman Jan Perry.

Race and ethnic issues have played only a peripheral role in the race for mayor, a sharp contrast from 2005 when Antonio Villaraigosa became the first Hispanic to win the office in more than a century.

In a decision that will hang heavy on the next mayor of the financially troubled city, voters Tuesday knocked down a proposed increase to the city's sales tax – a half-cent boost to 9.5 percent. The measure was defeated by a double-digit margin, returns show.

Garcetti is an Ivy Leaguer from the Valley's tony Encino enclave who enjoys playing jazz piano. He has a history of social activism stretching back to his youth.

Greuel, who attended the University of California, Los Angeles, has worked for the city and federal governments, with a detour into the film industry as an executive.

Democratic consultant Kerman Maddox, who worked with Greuel during the tenure of the city's first and only black mayor, Tom Bradley, said she impressed him while working with homeless people in troubled neighborhoods.

Maddox remembers a group of homeless men asking him for combs and grooming products to help them spruce up for job interviews, then learning the next day that Greuel had stepped in and handled the job.

"She never told me she did anything," Maddox said. "In 1987, you don't get a whole lot of credit for helping a whole bunch of poor black people. They don't vote. She just did it."

Neither candidate came to the race for mayor with the name recognition of big city mayors such as New York's Michael Bloomberg or Chicago's Rahm Emanuel.

The story of the upcoming runoff might have been foreshadowed in Tuesday's anemic turnout. Preliminary figures pegged it at 16 percent, though thousands of mail-in ballots remain uncounted.

Top finisher Garcetti didn't even clear 100,000 votes at the voting booths in a city of 4 million people.

The candidates desperately need to get residents to care.

The entertainment industry dominates in Los Angeles, and the Lakers, Clippers and Dodgers captivate sports fans. By comparison, local politics is often ignored, even by swaths of the media.

Mayors in recent memory have all come and gone with many of the same promises unfulfilled, from relieving snarled traffic to thinning the ranks of a downtown homeless population that comprises a small, sad community known as Skid Row.

The primary campaign focused on "insider baseball, stuff that happens at City Hall," noted veteran Democratic consultant Garry South.

In the sprawling city of 469 square miles, divided by freeways, economic disparity and the Hollywood Hills, "City Hall is too far away from a lot of people to even care," South said.

In an interview Wednesday with KNX-AM radio, Greuel offered little in the way of specifics about how she would invest in street repairs and other programs starved for cash while contending with rising employee costs and a shaky budget.

"It's about priorities," she said.

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