OTTAWA - The campaign for mayor of the nation's capital is a two-man race between a former mayor and provincial cabinet minister and an incumbent who spent much of his first term fighting criminal charges.

Larry O'Brien's recent decision to run for re-election has turned the Ottawa mayoralty race from a sauntering near-certainty for Jim Watson to a slugfest between the former provincial Liberal and the conservative O'Brien.

There are at least 14 candidates running for the city's top job, but it's Watson, 48, and O'Brien, 60, who are consistently out front in public opinion polls, with Watson holding a decided lead in most.

The latest survey, done exclusively for The Canadian Press by Harris-Decima, indicates the race may be tightening somewhat.

It found 29 per cent of respondents said they would vote for Watson in the Oct. 25 municipal election, while 22 per cent said they'd back O'Brien.

The survey of 501 Ottawa residents was conducted July 2-4, immediately after O'Brien announced he would run for re-election following his crowning achievement — a closely watched vote to develop the city's dormant football stadium and surrounding parkland.

A sample that size in a city the size of Ottawa — with a population of just under a million people — is considered accurate within 4.4 points, 19 times in 20. So the two frontrunners could conceivably be tied.

O'Brien's popularity has rebounded since he was acquitted last August on influence-peddling charges related to allegations he promised a rival candidate a federal job in exchange for dropping out of the 2006 mayoral race.

The bald and brash Conservative, technology consultant and entrepreneur won that election in a landslide.

But his support nosedived when he doggedly refused to quit his job in the face of criminal charges, got caught up in a protracted and bitter transit strike and then hiked property taxes after making "zero means zero" his campaign rallying cry.

O'Brien's first budget increase was only 0.3 per cent, but city council increased levies more than three per cent in each of the last three budget years.

Watson has pounced on the tax issue, deriding increases "well beyond the rate of inflation" and calling O'Brien's zero-means-zero promise a gimmick.

"For the past four years we have had erratic leadership and we’ve paid for it with higher taxes," he said.

While mayor in the 1990s, Watson said he froze taxes for two years, reduced the city's debt load and increased its reserve funds.

Now he's promising to cap annual tax hikes at 2.5 per cent, well below the 2010 increase of 3.77 per cent approved by council earlier this year.

"A zero tax increase is simply not practical without doing serious damage to the services we count on and need," he's said.

O'Brien has dismissed Watson a professional politician.

“I’ve told Jim many times that he’s the single best politician that I’ve ever met,” said O’Brien. “I don’t think that’s what the city needs. I think the city needs progress.”

He said he couldn’t think of a single thing Watson did as a former mayor of Ottawa to make the city a better place.

So far, Watson has largely avoided head-on confrontation with O'Brien, all the while lamenting council's "never-ending and divisive debates."

The latest survey has some good news for both candidates. It suggests that most Ottawa residents now see the city under O'Brien's watch as heading in the right direction.

"Compared to historical tracking, Ottawa residents are feeling much more positive about the direction in which the city is headed than they have been over the past five years," said pollster Doug Anderson.

Roughly half (49 per cent) of respondents said they felt Ottawa is headed in the right direction compared to 36 per cent who said it isn't.

That's in sharp contrast to last fall, when 55 per cent said they felt the city was headed in the wrong direction and only 29 per cent said it was headed the right way.

"Satisfaction with Mayor O'Brien's performance is divided, but continues to outstrip that of city council in general," Anderson said.

"Historically, it was usually the case that the mayor had a slight edge over city council in terms of residents' satisfaction, but Mayor O'Brien appears to have had a larger gap than previous mayor Bob Chiarelli and continues to enjoy this relative edge."

While 48 per cent indicated some level of satisfaction with the current mayor's performance, roughly the same number — 46 per cent said they were dissatisfied. That's better than the satisfaction rates with city council, though: 38 per cent satisfied; 56 per cent dissatisfied.

The poll indicates Watson has a significant lead in terms of favourability, with nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of residents holding a favourable impression of him and only 17 per cent holding a negative impression.

O'Brien and the No. 3 candidate, Councillor Alex Cullen, have virtually identical proportions holding favourable impressions, at 44 per cent. But O'Brien has far more detractors than any other candidate, with 44 per cent of poll respondents holding a negative impression of him.

Head-to-head, the survey suggests Watson leads O'Brien on having the leadership qualities to be mayor, with more than twice the share (36-16) of decided respondents saying he had the right stuff.

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