By Elaine Porterfield
SEATTLE, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Seattle's Democratic Mayor Mike McGinn faces a tough hurdle to re-election on Tuesday as he faces off in a primary vote against a field of overwhelmingly progressive challengers, including a state legislator known for his leadership on gay marriage.
The candidates vying for a spot on the November ballot range from a former college football player to a popcorn factory worker. But the biggest challenge appears to come from state Senator Ed Murray, who according to the only major recent poll on the race was in a virtual dead heat with McGinn.
"If you look at the range of viable candidates, the actual policy differences are not that huge," said J. Patrick Dobel, a professor at the University of Washington School of Public Affairs, adding that the race featured "different flavors of progressives."
Those outside of Seattle, which has a history of unseating incumbents in contested primaries, may be forgiven for finding the field of candidates difficult to differentiate politically.
Likely best known is McGinn, a bearded former Sierra Club executive who bikes to work and has recently gone after Whole Foods, the darling of the affluent organic set, for paying workers less then employees at area unionized grocery stores.
Murray is known for his strong leadership in the successful fight to legalize same-sex marriage in the state and for his 18 years in the state Legislature.
A poll of 501 Seattle voters, commissioned by King 5 TV and released on July 18, showed Murray with 22 percent to McGinn's 21 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.
"I would take some caution in the (latest) poll," said former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who was himself unseated by McGinn in 2009 after two terms, becoming the second incumbent Seattle mayor in a decade to lose his seat through a primary challenge.
"Four years ago that same poll survey showed me 12 points ahead," Nickels said.
McGinn's fate on Tuesday may well come down to personality, said Dobel, citing a reputation for abrasiveness that has turned off many accustomed to more civil city politics.
"He is very sure he is right and his supporters believe it," Dobel said. "That's alienated a lot of (people) ... But it's a style that keeps his core constituency together. They will vote for him no matter what."
John Wyble, a McGinn campaign consultant, said the mayor appealed more to younger voters and that those who typically vote in Seattle mayoral primaries tend to be "a little older, a little more conservative."
Among other contenders in the race to advance to the November general election is former Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, a strong supporter of neighborhoods and the son of a local hero who led a campaign several decades ago to save the city's historic Pike Place Market.
Another major candidate, City Councilman Bruce Harrell, is making reform of the police department one of his campaign issues, but is likely still most widely known as a football player for the beloved University of Washington Huskies.
Another candidate, bow-tied businessman Charlie Staadecker, is attempting to stand out with his calls for the renewed use of virtues such as trust and authenticity in public service.
Lower in visibility is socialist candidate Mary Martin, who works in a popcorn factory and told the Seattle Times that working people need "to take political power out of the hands of the capitalist class." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)