Mayor James Fiorentini speaks at Maria's restaurant last night after winning the primary mayoral election. Fiorentini and James Rurak will continue on to face off in the November election.

HAVERHILL | Between them, they have led the city for 12 of the last 14 years.

Their ideological differences date back to 1965, when they were students at Haverhill High School who faced off in a political debate.

Now Mayor James Fiorentini and former Mayor James Rurak will clash to determine who leads this city for the next two years, as it faces financial struggles and record housing growth.

Fiorentini defeated his three opponents in yesterday's preliminary election, getting almost twice as many votes as Rurak and outpacing Sally Cerasuolo-O'Rorke by a margin of more than 4-1. A fourth candidate, former city Harbormaster William "Red" Slavit, received 67 votes. The two top vote-getters | Fiorentini and Rurak | now advance to the final election Nov. 6.

Fiorentini, 60, and Rurak, 58, have faced each other in two previous elections | the 2003 mayoral campaign won by Fiorentini and the 2001 state Senate race for the 3rd Essex District, eventually won by Steven Baddour of Methuen.

Fiorentini and Rurak first matched wits in 1965 at a Voice of Democracy three-person debate hosted at the local VFW hall. That debate, on whether 18- to 21-year-olds should be allowed to vote, was won by a woman whose name Fiorentini could not recall, he said last night.

Fiorentini captured 54 percent of yesterday's vote. Rurak received 32 percent and Cerasuolo-O'Rorke 13 percent. During the campaign, she spent $73,861 to Fiorentini's $65,257 and Rurak's $37,614.

"I accomplished my first goal, and I could never have done it without you," Rurak told a gathering of friends and family members at his East Broadway home last night. "I was the leader of this city once, and I can be again with your help."

Fiorentini, the former city councilor seeking his third consecutive term as mayor, said his wide margin of victory exceeded his most optimistic expectations.

"We were hoping for 44 percent" of the vote, he said at a party he hosted at Maria's Family Restaurant on Essex Street. "We never thought we'd get more than half the vote against two such strong opponents.

"This shows the public is happy with what we are doing and wants us to continue," Fiorentini said. "This shows the people don't want us to go backward."

Rurak, mayor from 1994 to 2001, immediately challenged Fiorentini to a series of debates starting with one on city finances and the history of the Hale Hospital deal. The debt left when the city sold the hospital to a private company in 2001, under Rurak's mayoral watch, is considered by many to be the root of the city's financial problems.

"Let's call the mayor out of hiding and discuss these issues with the people," Rurak said.

The collapse of the Hale and the deal crafted by Rurak to save it in exchange for $7 million-a-year debt payments by the city promises to be the subject of much discussion over the next six weeks.

Fiorentini's campaign message has been that almost four years ago he took over a city on the brink of financial ruin that Rurak caused. The mayor has said he turned Haverhill's prospects around by recruiting large housing developers to the downtown and retail giants such as BJ's Wholesale, Target and Lowe's to the city's outskirts.

Rurak has said he inherited the Hale crisis in 1994 and that he was the city leader who finally dealt with it, shepherding the deal that saved the hospital, which today provides the city with health services, tax money and jobs.

He has also criticized Fiorentini for encouraging large-scale residential development downtown, leading to more than 800 apartments and condominiums under construction or planned for old factory buildings. Among the projects is one of more than 300 units, the biggest ever for Haverhill.

Last night Fiorentini rebuffed Rurak's challenge for multiple debates, committing only to the one scheduled for Oct. 22.

"Mr. Rurak would love to revisit his legacy regarding the Hale, but I'm not interested in talking about the past," Fiorentini said. "I'm going to be talking about how we have avoided a tax override when everyone thought that was our only way out."

The finals also promise an increase in fundraising and campaign spending.

"I'll raise what I need and spend carefully," Rurak said of the spending gap. "I'm confident we can raise exactly what we need to get our message out, just like we did in the primary."

Both men credited their supporters and volunteers for their victories.

Rurak deployed election "checkers" at every polling place in the city. He said the checkers matched the names and addresses of those who cast ballots with registered voters whose support Rurak was counting on. Supporters who had not voted by mid-day received phone calls from Rurak's camp, reminding them to get to the polls, he said.

"Using poll checkers is a time-honored technique in close elections," Rurak said. "I never did it before, but my father used them many times," he said of the late James "Jake" Rurak, Haverhill's longtime state senator.

Rurak said his loss in the 2003 preliminary mayoral election by 12 votes to former City Council President Michael Bresnahan persuaded him to do whatever he could to make sure every one of his supporters cast a ballot yesterday.

"After the 2003 election, so many people apologized for not voting because they thought I'd make it to the finals," he said. "There was one house alone with 12 registered voters who supported me who all forgot to vote."

Rurak spent much of yesterday traveling to polling places to make sure his checkers, 43 volunteers in all, had plenty to eat and drink.

Fiorentini said he began walking city streets at 5:30 yesterday morning in the dark. In the earliest hours, he placed flyers on doors, reminding his supporters to vote. He waited until about 8:30 a.m. to start knocking on doors, he said.

Fiorentini's campaign manager, Alex Stanton, said 36 volunteers, not including the mayor, knocked on 2,650 doors by the time the polls closed at 8 p.m. Each of the candidates also had dozens of people calling supporters throughout the day, they said.

Fiorentini said he intends to treat yesterday's 2,000-vote victory as if he lost by 2,000 votes.

"I'll be out tomorrow holding a sign thanking everyone for their support," he said.

After that, the mayor said he will travel to Iowa to visit his daughter Regina who is campaigning for the Democratic National Party.

At his celebration party, Rurak said his first job, now that the preliminary is over, is to cut the knee-high grass around his home.

"Then we're getting right back to work," he said. "I'm going to run on my record and positive vision for city versus the credit-taking and excuse-making of my opponent."

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