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The bruising campaign for Tuesday's mayoral election was to end with televised debates just days after the death of one candidate's mother seemed to change the tone of the race.

Michael Woo clashes Sunday and Monday in the first live TV debates of his runoff campaign against Richard Riordan, who canceled appearances last week to attend his mother's funeral in New York state. She died Tuesday at age 101.Recent polls show the race was a tie between Woo, a liberal city councilman, and Riordan, a wealthy conservative businessman. But for many voters, weeks of dirty campaigning and partisan intrusion into the officially nonpartisan race - highlighted by President Clinton's endorsement of Woo - have left only a choice between evils.

In the past few days, the campaign rhetoric has been gentler, with the notable exception of television ads that continue to have a nasty tone. Woo tempered his attacks at appearances and Riordan was out of town.

In the debates, if Woo strikes too hard at Riordan, he could come off as insensitive because of the death of Riordan's mother. If he lets Riordan off the hook, Woo risks letting sympathy build for his opponent.

Meanwhile, a good performance by Riordan during a difficult personal time could sway a number of voters, most of whom had never heard of him before the campaign.

The winner replaces Tom Bradley, who is retiring after 20 years as mayor.

A Los Angeles Times poll indicated voters blame both candidates for making the race excessively negative.

"I think it stinks. Is that too blunt? Well, that's what I think. I'm disgusted with the whole thing," Jeanne Taylor, a San Fernando Valley lawyer, said after a candidates' forum last week. She said she would grudgingly vote for Riordan.

Julian Bellenghi, an undecided voter, added, "I think the candidates should spend less time trying to slander each other and more time addressing the issues."

Earlier in the campaign, Woo erased a 7-point Riordan lead in polls using personal attacks that focused on Riordan's three alcohol-related arrests in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many voters are so unhappy with the campaign that they're telling pollsters the best candidate is not even on the ballot. In a poll commissioned by KCAL-TV and KFWB-AM, popular new Police Chief Willie Williams would beat both Woo and Riordan by at least 6 points.

The candidates have focused on public safety issues, which are of keen importance in a city scorched by rioting last year after the acquittals in the first Rodney King beating trial.

Riordan, who says the top three campaign themes are "safety, safety, safety," has pledged to put 3,000 more police officers on the street with a plan financed in part by leasing the city-owned Los Angeles International Airport to a private group.

Woo's public safety plan is less ambitious. He promises to increase gradually the number of police with money cut from the budgets of the mayor and City Council and from other city departments.