Ben Chin’s campaign slogan, printed at the bottom of signs all over Lewiston, is simple: “It’s time for change.”

Next month, he’ll find out whether voters agree.

Chin, one of four challengers running against two-term Mayor Robert Macdonald, is the starkest contrast to the conservative firebrand incumbent who has made welfare reform his top issue. Late last month, Macdonald proposed creating an online registry that would list names and addresses of welfare recipients, an idea that was reviled by some, intrigued others and drew national attention.

Three other candidates also are on the Nov. 3 ballot: Steve Morgan, a Republican real estate agent and former City Council president; Luke Jensen, a recent college graduate who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican in a state House race last year; and Charles Soule, an independent and longtime city resident who regularly runs for office but generates minimal support.

Those who follow the race closely, though, predict it will come down to Macdonald, a Republican, and Chin, a Democrat, although a number of factors – voter turnout, a likely runoff, and debate performances – could influence the outcome. The first debate, held last Monday, didn’t feature many fireworks but outlined some clear differences.

“Chin is working really hard, knocking on a lot of doors, but Macdonald still has a lot of support,” said Stavros Mendros, a former Republican state representative. “They couldn’t be more different.”

Mike Lajoie, a former Lewiston fire chief in his fourth term as a Democratic state representative, said Macdonald and Chin are polar opposites in just about every way – their ideas, their style, even how they look.

“I think it’s a tossup,” Lajoie said. “Ben looks at the world a lot differently than Mayor Macdonald does – than I do, too, frankly – but Macdonald has spoken to a lot of people’s frustrations in this city.”

Lewiston, Maine’s second-largest city with about 36,000 residents, has struggled to recover from a slow economic decline. The closures of several industrial mills, coupled with a steady influx of immigrants, has created a struggling community where poverty, unemployment and public assistance rates are high.

The percentage of residents on food stamps is twice as high in Lewiston as in Maine overall. The rate of residents receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is more than three times higher in Lewiston than in the state as a whole.

Macdonald, first elected in 2011 after his opponent suddenly died, declined to be interviewed for this story. He has had a sometimes contentious relationship with the news media.

Chin, who announced he was running back in February and has been canvassing the city and raising a record amount of money ever since, acknowledged that Macdonald has an advantage as the incumbent.

“Any advantage I have is pushing the envelope and offering voters something different,” he said.

RUNNING ON WELFARE REFORM

Macdonald, 68, a retired police officer and education technician, had no political experience when he first ran for mayor in 2011, a part-time job for which Macdonald currently is paid $4,500 a year.

On Election Day, he came in second to Democrat Mark Paradis, but because Paradis didn’t get a majority of votes, as required in the city charter, the two men squared off in a special election about a month later.

Paradis died of cancer less than a week before the runoff, and Macdonald won by 70 votes, a margin of 1.5 percent.

Two years later, Macdonald doubled down on his welfare reform rhetoric. He called for eliminating welfare for asylum-seekers and further restrictions to public assistance. That aggressive push, and the built-in power of incumbency, helped him beat his opponent, Democrat Larry Gilbert, a former two-term mayor, with 61 percent of the vote.

Macdonald’s blunt talk – he once told immigrants to “leave your culture at the door” – has turned some Lewiston voters against him, but others have applauded him for standing up and saying what others are afraid to say. He has consistently gone after welfare recipients, often labeling them as cheats who are straining Lewiston’s budget.

Many people, including some of his opponents, believe Macdonald to be a one-issue candidate. Morgan said Macdonald has had “tunnel vision” when it comes to welfare reform, at the expense of other issues.

Jensen said he agrees with most of what Macdonald has said but hasn’t seen any action by the mayor to match his rhetoric.

Chin said he doesn’t agree with Macdonald’s comments about those on public assistance and said the mayor has missed opportunities to improve the city, such as integrating the growing immigrant population into the community and improving the housing stock.

Said Abdullahi, 33, who immigrated to Lewiston from Somalia more than a decade ago, said he doesn’t get a welcoming feeling from the current mayor.

“He seems to not realize that his city isn’t just changing, it has changed,” he said. “Maybe we need a leader to reflect that.”

Still, Macdonald’s harsh words for welfare recipients, which often find their way into his weekly column in a local free newspaper, resonate.

“I think he’s saying out loud what a lot of people have been saying under their breath for some time,” said Lajoie, the Democratic lawmaker. “No one was really speaking up about it and sort of gave them a voice, and they appreciate that.”

When Chin announced his candidacy in February, Macdonald called the Maine People’s Alliance – for which Chin is now the political director – “the enemy of Lewiston.” The MPA has been an advocate for low-income Mainers and has pushed for, among other things, increasing the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid, both of which Macdonald opposes.

HIGHLY VISIBLE CHALLENGER

Chin has been active in the community since he came to Maine to attend Bates College more than a decade ago. He now owns a home, is married, and he and his wife are expecting their first child about a week before Election Day.

He got into politics after joining the MPA as a canvasser.

“The math for me went like this,” Chin, 30, said, explaining his decision to run for mayor. “We’ve got partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., and partisan gridlock in Augusta. If you want to get something done, it has to be at local level. I think it’s possible to do big things.”

His experience knocking on doors and raising money has served him well. As of the end of June, he had raised more than $34,000, an unheard-of amount for a municipal race in Lewiston. City Clerk Kathy Montejo said $5,000 for an entire race is the norm and before Chin, she’s never seen a candidate raise more than $12,000.

None of the other candidates had filed reports as of June 30, meaning they hadn’t raised any money. The next reports, which cover July 1 through Oct. 15, are not due until Oct. 23.

But Chin’s big donation haul is not necessarily a measure of local support. About 90 percent of those donations came from people outside Lewiston. He has spent about half of that total, much of it on campaign management services. His Maine People’s Alliance colleague Gen Lysen is running his campaign.

Chin has run an aggressive campaign, but some say he may be a bit too progressive for some lifelong Democrats in Lewiston, who tend to be more moderate as a whole. He has proposed an economic plan that would cost $20 million over five years at a time when the city’s budget is already strained. Included in that plan are investments in solar energy and creating 100 units of new housing. A few years ago, he backed an effort to allow noncitizens the right to vote.

POSSIBLE CONTENDER

While Chin is the biggest challenger, those watching the race say Morgan could contend because he’s a middle-ground option between Macdonald on the right and Chin on the left.

A Lewiston resident for more than three decades, the 59-year-old has been involved in city politics before but has been out of the scene for a little while. Although he shares Macdonald’s fiscal conservatism, Morgan said the mayor has not done enough to convince businesses to come to Lewiston.

“We’re losing out to Auburn on a lot of things,” he said. “The best way to improve things for taxpayers here is to bring in business and help drive taxes down.”

Jensen, a former valedictorian at Lewiston High School, started volunteering at the local Republican Party office as a teenager and has been politically active since. He went to college out of state but returned to Lewiston two years ago and has been working in the banking industry.

Jensen, 24, described himself as moderate and pointed out that he was the only Republican candidate last year to be endorsed by Equality Maine, which advocates for gay rights. He also has been active in the push to legalize marijuana.

“Even if we have some of the same opinions, our messages are different,” he said. “I want people to feel like Lewiston is not a dying city.”

Soule, who lives on Bartlett Street in the city’s downtown, could not be reached for comment. His campaign paperwork did not list a phone number.

HEADED FOR A RUNOFF?

Historically, Lewiston has been a Democratic-leaning city. Of the 24,931 registered voters, 41 percent are Democrats, compared to just 17 percent Republicans.

Macdonald has prevailed in the mayoral election twice in the last four years, and last year Gov. Paul LePage got more than 50 percent of the Lewiston vote in a three-way race.

Macdonald and LePage have similar conservative ideologies, especially on welfare reform.

The people who like Macdonald really like him. That may have been why he proposed an online welfare registry, an idea that most people correctly predicted was doomed from the start. But the idea may have helped motivate his base.

“He’s trying to fight for taxpayers by reducing the welfare burden,” said Bruce Athern, 52. “He may not be PC, but I can overlook that.”

Mendros said people appreciate Macdonald’s gruffness, but “underneath that, he’s a really nice guy. And he’ll meet with anyone.”

The biggest growing bloc of residents, and voters, in Lewiston is immigrants, many from African countries. From 2000 to 2010, Lewiston’s African-American population grew from 383 to 3,174, an increase of 828 percent. City officials say the number is even higher than that today, perhaps as high as 6,000. It’s not clear how many of them are eligible to vote.

Another voting bloc that could be a factor is Bates College students, who would appear to favor fellow alum Chin, or Jensen, who is closer to them in age. But historically, college-aged voters usually don’t participate in local races.

Turnout could well be the biggest factor in the mayor’s race, held in a year with no statewide or national races and no hot-button referendum questions that would drive people to the polls.

The last time Macdonald’s name was on the ballot, he got 61 percent of votes from the 28 percent of registered voters (6,000 or so) who turned out.

In 2011, 44 percent of registered voters cast ballots on Election Day, but only 21 percent voted in the runoff.

Most predict next month’s election will produce a runoff as well.

Because of the number of candidates, the chance that any one of them will get 50 percent of the vote is small. If that doesn’t happen, the top two vote-getters will meet head-to-head in a special election tentatively set for Dec. 8.

“I think it’s likely that only one of the Republicans will make it through to that runoff and I think, at this point, that is probably going to be the mayor,” said Lajoie.

Leaders from both parties agree that the race is likely Macdonald’s to lose, but Chin poses a strong challenge.

“Chin, because he’s the most different candidate and because he has strong organizational support, is the biggest challenger,” Mendros said. “But I wouldn’t bet against Macdonald.”