By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Voters in Boston head to the polls on Tuesday to choose among a dozen candidates for mayor in a preliminary round of voting in the city's most wide-open mayoral election in decades.
Recent polls have shown City Councilor John Connolly, the one candidate to enter the race before Mayor Thomas Menino said he would not seek an unprecedented sixth term in office, with a narrow lead.
Several other candidates were well within striking range, with county District Attorney Daniel Conley and state Representative Martin Walsh close behind. Another state Representative, Charlotte Golar Richie, who would be the city's first black and first female mayor, rounded out the top four.
The large field also includes city councilors Felix Arroyo, Robert Consalvo, Michael Ross and Charles Yancey, former school committee member John Barros, former police officer Charles Clemons, and community organizer Bill Walczak. Former teacher David James Wyatt is the race's one Republican.
With such a large field of contenders, observers said turnout will be key in the nonpartisan preliminary election. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face off in the November general election.
"They are all trying to hold their own," said John Berg, professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston. "If it were more of a spread, John Connolly might be tempted to rest on his laurels, but it's so close that he's going to be nervous too."
A Boston Herald/Suffolk University poll last week showed Connolly with the support of 16 percent of likely voters, a 4 point lead on his nearest rivals.
Liberal-leaning Boston has not elected a Republican mayor since 1926.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, which oversees elections in Massachusetts, forecast that more than 100,000 voters would turn out for the preliminary poll, well over the roughly 82,000 people who voted in the preliminary election four years ago.
With such a large number of candidates, none of whom have a dominating position, Tuesday's result might come down to what campaign is most effective in getting its voters to the polls, said John Berg, a professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston.
Menino, the city's longest-serving mayor, took office in 1993, when his predecessor Raymond Flynn resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. His impending departure has already begun to have consequences. On Monday, Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who earned praise for his calm and effective work after the April Boston Marathon bombing, said he would retire from his position to clear the way for Menino's predecessor to pick his or her own police chief.
Boston mayors do not face term limits and are rarely defeated in re-election campaigns.
(Reporting by Scott Malone. Editing by Andre Grenon)