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Stephanie Grace, center, leads the Lake Area Mayoral Forum Sponsored by The New Orleans Advocate at the Hellenic cultural Center attended by, from left to right, Tommie Vassel, Michael Bagneris, Troy Henry, Desiree Charbonnet, LaToya Cantrell and Frank Scurlock in New Orleans, La., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

Two weeks before the Oct. 14 primary, the New Orleans mayoral race remains a toss-up among three leading candidates, all of whom have strong favorability ratings and similar traction among the city's diverse electorate, according to a poll conducted for The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.  

Nearly one in five voters is still undecided as the campaign enters its home stretch, the poll found, a possible reflection of the race's low temperature and the relative civility among its front-runners.

"What's interesting is that there's no candidate who dominates the race, and no candidate who dominates any single voter group," said Ron Faucheux, president of the Clarus Research Group, which conducted the poll for the news organizations.

For the first time in the city's history, the expected Nov. 18 runoff appears certain to feature at least one female candidate. City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet are in a dead heat, garnering 27 percent and 26 percent of the vote respectively, while 19 percent of the poll's respondents support former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris.

No other candidate is in striking distance. 

Faucheux's firm interviewed 500 people registered to vote in New Orleans last week. The poll has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points, meaning that each candidate's true standing could vary by that amount in either direction.

"New Orleans has a strong majority of female voters, but I do find it interesting that not one candidate has emerged as the women's candidate or the men's candidate," Faucheux said. "LaToya Cantrell is doing best among men right now, and Desiree Charbonnet is doing best among women."

Faucheux, a former state representative who ran for mayor in 1982, attributed the parity to the lack of attacks and the absence of "negative intensity" associated with any of the candidates. The ballot also is short on big-ticket names, Faucheux said, adding that the campaign to succeed Mayor Mitch Landrieu got off to "something of a late start."

The first weeks of the campaign proved anticlimactic, more notable for who stayed out of the race than who waded into it. All of these factors make the final days of the race more critical, as the campaigns seek to sharpen their messages, raise last-minute funds and get out their vote. 

"I think the electorate is dealing with a lot of candidates they just don't know that well," Faucheux said. "And the sort of backroom part of this campaign lasted longer than most. Only recently have we been seeing advertising and public activity on the part of the campaigns."

The poll, like others before it, strongly suggests that no other candidate besides Bagneris, Cantrell and Charbonnet has a shot to finish in the money. Businessman Troy Henry placed fourth in the Advocate/WWL-TV poll, but with just 4 percent of the vote. He finished in second place, far behind Landrieu, in the 2010 mayoral contest but has struggled to break into the top tier of this year's contenders.

Tommie Vassel, a certified public accountant, took 2 percent, as did Frank Scurlock, whose candidacy was hurt by recent news accounts of a lewd conduct charge he faces in California, where he is accused of masturbating in an Uber vehicle earlier this year.

The poll was done after that news surfaced, and it found Scurlock had the lowest favorability rating among the best-known candidates, at just 15 percent. Forty percent of the poll's respondents held an unfavorable view of Scurlock. 

Charbonnet had the highest favorability rating at 63 percent, but the other top candidates weren't far behind on that measure. 

While Bagneris placed third in the Advocate/WWL-TV poll, Faucheux noted that other polls suggest he has gained momentum in recent weeks. A poll conducted last month by Market Research Insight put him second behind Cantrell with 26 percent of the vote. And a more recent MRI poll actually has Bagneris in the lead, with 33 percent. 

"The question now is: Does he have the resources and the campaign strength to close the race?" Faucheux said. "For Michael Bagneris to have a shot at the runoff, he needs to raise more money and expand his presence in terms of advertising."

Even if the front-runners decline to take aim at one another, the race could take on a more negative tenor in the coming days because of attack ads paid for by outside groups. 

The reality-TV star Sidney Torres vowed last week to use his political action committee, Voice of the People, to spend $100,000 on ads targeting Charbonnet after the former judge dropped out of a debate Torres arranged. Torres has already posted an ad questioning her fitness to be mayor.

A second PAC whose contributors are not yet known has produced a series of anti-Charbonnet mailers. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.