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Something has been happening in Tel Aviv these past few weeks. In cafes, bars and living rooms people are beginning to argue about municipal elections. Indeed, some are asking a question that is not to be taken for granted: Can Hadash MK Dov Khenin make it into a second round of elections opposite incumbent Mayor Ron Huldai? About two weeks before the elections, this is the main question, surprisingly, in what now increasingly looks like an open election.

Two public opinion polls carried out during the past month by the Maagar Mochot research group are predicting a huge victory for Huldai, who is running on the One Tel Aviv list, a partnership between the Labor Party and Kadima. However, an analysis of the findings yields a clear trend indicating, in recent weeks, that Huldai has been losing a considerable degree of support and that Khenin, running on the list Ir Lekulanu (A City For All), is gaining strength.

The first of these surveys was prepared for Huldai's campaign headquarters at the end of September with a sampling of 515 city residents. The second survey was conducted for the weekly newspaper Zman Tel Aviv in mid-October with 543 respondents. In each of the surveys, the sampling error was 4.5 percent.

The first survey predicts a sweeping victory for Huldai in the first round. In the survey, the incumbent received support from 53 percent of those surveyed, as compared to 8 percent for Khenin and 2 percent for each of the other two candidates: Deputy Mayor and Green Party chairman Peer Visner and Major General (res.) Oren Shahor, running on an independent list. Thirty-five percent of the respondents in this survey replied that they had not yet decided for whom they would vote. After discounting the undecided voters, the results of the survey among those who have formed an opinion are: 81 percent for Huldai, 11 percent for Khenin, 4 percent for Visner and 4 percent favor Shahor.

According to the second survey, Huldai take 37 percent of the vote and does not win in the first round, Khenin wins 14 percent, Shahor 4 percent and Visner 3 percent, while 42 percent replied that they had not decided for whom they will vote. Among the respondents who declared in the second survey that they would vote, Huldai's ability to win in the first round is borderline and he wins 45 percent of the vote, as compared to 21 percent for Khenin, 4 percent for Visner and 8 percent for Shahor. Although both surveys predict an ultimate victory for Huldai, the glaring finding that emerges from them cannot be ignored: Within two weeks, support for Huldai declined by 16 percent and dropped from 53 percent to 37 percent, while support for Khenin rose from 8 percent to 14 percent.

The CEO of Maagar Mohot, Professor Yitzhak Katz, notes, "It can be said rationally that Dov Khenin is on the map. This isn't a flash in the pan candidate who appeared and didn't rise. Khenin has appeared and staked out a claim. He is there. It is impossible to ignore him - he is a significant factor. Nevertheless, to go on to say that he might yet double or triple his strength - that would be excessive."

Katz estimates that Huldai will win in the first round, as the pool of undecided votes in the second survey indicates, Huldai is assured of the percentage points that he needs to cross the 40 percent line for a first round victory.

However, one of the findings in the first survey should be very disturbing for Huldai: Only 51 percent of the mayor's supporters are certain that they will vote on election day.

Nor is Visner lagging behind

On Friday, the Yedioth Tel Aviv, a local newspaper, published a survey carried out on October 2 by the Dahaf Institute under the direction of Dr. Mina Zemach and taken from a sample of 501 voters. According to this survey, when sampling only those who indicate they will actually cast votes, (45 percent), with a standard deviation of 4.5 percent, Huldai's ability to win in the first round becomes less certain. In this survey, Huldai garners 41 percent as compared to 22 percent for Khenin. Visner, who comes in third in this survey with 15 percent, has gained significant strength compared to the other two surveys and he is not far behind Khenin in a second round against Huldai. In his election campaign, Visner has promised to aggressively combat pollution. Ranked fourth is the candidate of the National Religious and United Torah Jewry, Rabbi Naftali Lobert, who was supported by 5 percent of respondents. Also, Shahar won 4 percent, as did social activist Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalaka of the Da'am Workers Party.

It is quite possible that a second round would "reshuffle the cards" and blur Huldai's advantage, and in that case possible support would be recruited from other parties and the candidate who goes head-to-head with the mayor in the second round might well gain votes.

Three large factions in the current municipal council - Meretz (five council members), Likud (three council members) and Shas (three council members) - have not yet declared their support for Huldai, even though they are not running candidates of their own for mayor. However, the largest faction on the municipal council, the Pensioners (six council members) has endorsed Huldai. Khenin is supported by the Jaffa Jewish-Arab list Yafa (whose partners are Balad and Hadash). "Khenin reaches out to the weak population and it is in his power to bring about the turnaround," says Omar Siksak, the chairman of the Yafa list. Negotiations between A City For All and Meretz to join forces failed because of Khenin's movement's objection to include the name Meretz. "We could not give up the overarching identity of our party," explains A City for All spokeswoman, Sharon Shahaf. On the other side, Meretz list chairwoman Meital Lahavi explains: "As we see it, Meretz is the name of a strong political and ideological identity and we are not interested in hiding it." Although the two lists have a similar worldview regarding core municipal issues, including stopping the huge municipal investments in roads and parking lots that encourage the entry of private vehicles into the city, and the creation of affordable housing for people of limited means and the middle class, Meretz is still not endorsing Khenin.

"Despite the ideological closeness, since Khenin has declared that if he is not elected mayor he will not serve on the municipal council, we decided that we have had enough of having the cake and eating it too," says Lahavi.

Huldai too, it emerges, is not promising to serve as a council member. From his campaign headquarters: The issue is hypothetical. Huldai intends to continue to serve as mayor and to keep his promises to the voters.

One Khenin supporter, former cabinet minister Yossi Sarid, who decided not to run even though he probably had a good chance, says: "Kehnin has momentum, and that's excellent, but the gap in the public opinion polls is too large. Nevertheless, there is still time. Look at what is happening in America. One day [Illinois Senator Barack] Obama is leading by 14 percent and another day he is barely ahead by two percent."