AS THE CONFETTI settles from primary night, it's clear we have three fierce races on our hands. Two of the races are all but over: Curt Firestone appears to have no chance of defeating incumbent Margaret Pageler for Position 5, and Peter Steinbrueck will certainly win and be re-elected for Position 3. But the remaining contests -- between Charlie Chong and Heidi Wills (Position 7), Dawn Mason and Jim Compton (Position 9), and Judy Nicastro and Cheryl Chow (Position 1) -- are looking to be brawls, as the candidates chase uncommitted blocks of voters, try to prove themselves senior-friendly, engage in some good old-fashioned red-baiting, and try to woo neighborhood groups.

The hottest race may very well be between Compton and Mason. Dawn Mason is clearly the activist candidate of choice here, having scored the support of Labor, the Civic Foundation, and fringe progressives like the Green Party. Meanwhile, Jim Compton (whose public affairs program, the Compton Report, entertained generations of Seattle seniors) glided through the primary on name recognition alone. From a political point of view, of course, one could hardly ask for a better form of local celebrity than a home town public affairs show watched predominantly by older women (who we call "voters" in the trade). But Compton started late, and hasn't taken any substantial stands on the issues.

Meanwhile, key blocks of support -- particularly environmentalists, who backed eliminated transportation guru Alec Fisken -- are still up for grabs. Mason will have to secure their support to win. This is particularly true because Mason's reputation as a bomb thrower tends to jar the establishment. In turn, it's likely that Compton -- with whatever stand he takes (or doesn't take) on the issues -- will pick up key endorsements (like the Times, P-I, Muni League) and plenty of campaign contributions along the way, simply for not being Mason. Which raises the question: Will we elect a city council member whose views we know effectively nothing about? Or will Compton define himself more clearly in the next few weeks?

Judy Nicastro has the opposite problem. Nicastro has made some poorly-considered statements about the monorail and Sound Transit, and of course has that rent- control skeleton dancing the macarena in her closet. There is a real danger that Judy will be pinned to the wall for this off-the-cuff populist straight talk (despite what she may say now about how she was misunderstood, or has since changed her mind), and made to look, in one observer's words, "like a dingbat socialist." "That's complete nonsense," Nicastro says. "I think having courage and dealing with issues that council hasn't been willing to tackle makes you look radical, but I'm pretty moderate in a lot of ways." Until now, Nicastro has gotten a free ride in the media, with the exception of a spiteful column or two from the Times' former in-house Rightist, Michelle Malkin. But now that Nicastro has come out of the primary within spitting distance of knocking off former Council woman Cheryl Chow, she's likely to come under more scrutiny from the press and from key groups of activists, like Washington Conservation Voters.

And don't write off her opponent Cheryl Chow, either. She comes off as rather dim sometimes, but she is a tough campaigner, with the legacy of a powerful old-school political machine behind her; and while those in the know may mock her education platform (a matter over which the city council has next to no authority), one local political consultant reminds us that minivan moms are a key block: "There are a lot of moms in this town, and they vote."

The real bloodletting is likely to happen in Position 7, where Heidi Wills is squaring off with Charlie Chong. Wills supporters smell victory in the air, having come through a primary against Chong -- arguably the best-known political figure in town -- within a scant 1 point. It's pretty likely the daily papers and business interests will now throw everything they've got behind Wills, while her base of Labor and environmentalists pulls out all the stops to get her elected.

Chong's folks -- NIMBY activists, the Civic Foundation, and the Weekly -- are likely to go after Wills herself, attacking her as a career bureaucrat and a pawn of powerful interests, too inexperienced and ultimately insincere.

The key battle in this race will be for the hearts and votes of what you might call "pro-active neighborhood folks": the kind of people involved in neighborhood planning, daylighting streams, planting street trees, and volunteering at the community center. These do-gooders are likely to find Charlie's neighborhoods' rights positions appealing, but also like Heidi's urban environmentalism.

Ultimately, the high profile fight between Heidi and Charlie will set the tone for all the races, as the other candidates are forced to take sides between urban environmentalism and neighborhood rights. Deciding which side they're on, however, could prove tricky as each candidate tries to navigate -- and win over -- Seattle's finicky voting blocks.

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