For the second time in less than nine months, voters are going to the polls to pick a mayor to lead this picturesque seaside city through a period of unprecedented turmoil.

Tuesday's nonpartisan election comes after Mayor Dick Murphy (search) resigned amid a wave of scandal and his interim replacement was suspended from office for being convicted of corruption charges.

The leading candidate is maverick City Councilwoman Donna Frye (search), who narrowly lost a write-in bid to replace Murphy last year when a judge tossed out thousands of ballots because voters who wrote her name down failed to darken the adjoining bubble. If the 53-year-old surf shop owner and registered Democrat finishes first but falls short of a majority, she would compete in a Nov. 8 runoff against her closest rival.

Two Republicans — Steve Francis (search) and Jerry Sanders (search) — appeared to be dueling for second place among the 11 hopefuls going into Tuesday's balloting.

Francis, 50, was a political unknown in San Diego until he spent about $2 million on a campaign that promoted himself as a businessman and outsider. He founded hospital staffing company AMN Healthcare Inc. after a stint in the Nevada state legislature in the 1980s.

"I really feel we have the wind at our backs," Francis said after casting his absentee vote Monday at the county Registrar's office. "We've come from virtually nowhere in the polls to, some would say, dead even ... with Jerry Sanders."

The 55-year-old Sanders has cast himself as a turnaround specialist, touting his record as police chief from 1993 to 1999 and positions at the local United Way and American Red Cross chapters.

Murphy, a Republican and former judge, announced soon after his re-election that he was resigning, saying he wanted to give San Diego a fresh start after the disputed election and amid a widening federal investigation of the city's pension fund.

Less than 72 hours after he left office, Murphy's interim replacement lost the job when a jury convicted him of federal corruption charges in a failed scheme to overturn San Diego's ban on touching dancers at strip clubs.

Frye and her remaining colleagues named Councilwoman Toni Atkins (search) interim mayor of the city of 1.3 million people until a replacement is elected.