Poltical battleground … the bike lanes are being targeted by nearly all the contenders for lord mayor.It’s 8pm in Alexandria, and a weary-looking Clover Moore sits – again – before a small crowd of those voters engaged or enraged enough to spend their evening talking local government.

Next to her is Edward Mandla, a software entrepreneur and the Liberal candidate for mayor. Mandla described Moore’s bearing at a similar ”meet the candidates” event for City of Sydney council in 2008 as ”regal”.

But not tonight. Tonight, the only adjective the Liberal candidate is using – and using often – is “nutty”.

”Clover Moore’s been treating the ratepayers and businesses as a money tree for nutty schemes,” he says. ”She’s lost her way, strangling this tree with random spending.”

As he speaks, Moore stares at the ceiling, her mouth a grim line by the word’s third airing, at which point she blanches, reddens – and then her eyes appear to moisten.

Council politics can be as nasty as any and, as the pointy end of the local government electoral cycle starts to draw blood, Moore’s critics say that after two terms as mayor she is autocratic, bored and out of ideas.

But the diminutive – and divisive – figure, with her trademark spiked hair, dog collars and slash of red lipstick, has cast such a shadow over Sydney in her three decades in politics that the electoral dialogue is dominated by ideas she has championed – bike paths, urban infill development, sustainability and the night-time economy.

For opponents pitching themselves alternatives to a green-tinged mayor who they claim has overlooked basic amenity in the pursuit of vanity projects, the challenge can be summed up thus: in an electorate where almost 40 per cent of households don’t own a car, how do you go about bashing bike lanes? Very gently, it would seem.

Despite the historical popularity of Moore’s policies, the challenge of taking on the uncompromising figure at the centre of such an entrenched brand has bent the 2012 campaign’s politics towards the personal. In many ways today’s poll will be a referendum on the woman herself.

“The only hard bit about my job is the venal politics. I love the work,” Moore tells the Herald, adding she finds “‘hate Clover’ sessions from political parties” to be “draining”.

“Council, I’m very pleased to say over the last eight years – around election time politics get venal – but the rest of the time the votes are mostly unanimous.”

Her local government polling, so far, has also tended towards the emphatic.

In 2008, Moore won a resounding mandate for the Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan (to reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent) with 56 per cent of the mayoral vote and 47 per cent of the council vote – a count that equalled the combined Greens, Liberal and Labor vote.

This year her six-seat majority looks less assured, with no fewer than seven teams trying to wrest the advantage – if not the lord mayoral chains – from the incumbent independent.

The 66-year-old has “renewed” her team – somewhat ruthlessly, in the case of dumped councillor Phillip Black – and this weekend will show if her vision of a sustainable city of urban villages still resonates with those who count: the local government area’s almost 170,000 residents, who are on average younger, richer and more progressive than the rest of the state.

This was certainly not the demographic represented at the “No More Clover” rally addressed by broadcaster Alan Jones last month, but others argue it’s not representative of the hundreds of thousands of greater Sydneysiders who work, shop and play in Australia’s largest CBD.

The loudest complaints about Moore cite the forgotten needs of business – but the commercial sector has hardly jumped at the chance to ditch her: only about 1700 of the city’s 20,000 to 50,000 businesses have registered to vote.

”Despite all the frothing,” the Premier , Barry O’Farrell, told Jones recently that non-residential voters hadn’t shown ”the level of interest they are entitled to”.

This was not for a lack of urging by the pro-business ticket, Living Sydney, which is taking the biggest fight to Moore, with all the appearances of a well-funded and organised campaign; Max Markson helped out in its early days, and its PR needs have since been handled by two city communications firms.

The Living Sydney brand, backed by major developers in the years before donation laws changed, launched Frank Sartor’s mayoral career and included one of 2012’s mayoral aspirants, Dixie Coulton, as a councillor.

It was reanimated last year by the Pyrmont real estate agents Barry and Katherine Goldman, supporters of Moore’s 2004 campaign who are now challenging the “autocratic and dictatorial” lord mayor.

Its lead candidate, Angela Vithoulkas, signed on about six months ago. She sits on council’s business advisory panel and had been approached to join Moore’s ticket.

”I’m a small business warrior,” she told supporters at a Macquarie Street fund-raiser last month, where she vowed to bust open ”Club Clover”. ”I certainly don’t get to bring in endless committees and specialist consultations to solve my problems. We’re lean and mean in business, we’ve got to get things done immediately.”

Except in the case of bike paths. Living Sydney, which says they are not working, proposes employing ”independent consultants to advise on cycling policy and strategy” along with a citizens’ jury to decide their fate. Its policy to introduce compulsory registration for all the city’s cyclists aged over 13 is among several Living Sydney election promises that fall within the turf of the state government.

Like Living Sydney, the Liberal ticket proposes free short-term parking on key shopping streets, more parking in new developments and more parking stations. It says it would ”protect” existing cycleways and even extend the network after a cost-benefit study. But the issue has served as a chance to deride the motives of the ”anti-car” lord mayor.

”I have this mental image of Clover Moore wanting people to be riding around the centre of Sydney with baguettes in their front baskets,” said the Liberal ticket’s No.2, Christine Forster, who nonetheless describes the path directly outside her Surry Hills house as an “asset”. Coulton is the only candidate actually prepared to say she would rip them up. But that would only be before “replacing them with safer ones”.

The cycleways earned the support of the previous council’s only Liberal, Shayne Mallard. He also supported council’s “nutty” plan for a network of energy efficient gas-powered tri-generation energy plants, which the Liberal ticket proposes dropping amid $250 million in capital spending cuts to help fund a 10 per cent rate cut. It’s a promise that would likely need a controlling stake on council for it to deliver.

They may not achieve this, but the Liberals are confident of a good result, up from a single seat last time around. How the council seats fall may prove more interesting – and instructive – than the mayoral race.

The Greens (a colour Moore has appropriated for her posters) are hoping to hold on to their two seats, campaigning on a pledge to introduce community precinct committees and increasing the council’s emphasis on affordable housing. Labor also says it hopes to up its single seat to two.

The ABC election analyst Antony Green says Labor’s vote has all but vanished in inner-Sydney, where it finished fourth for the state seat of Sydney in 2007.

”You go back three decades and Labor absolutely dominated Sydney City and South Sydney councils and now they’re virtually non-existent,” he said.

In a bid to restore trust in its tattered brand, Labor used the City of Sydney’s election to test its ”community preselection”, giving the public a say in the party’s choice of lead candidate.

When the dust settled, the refugee advocate Linda Scott from the party’s Left faction emerged on top of the ticket, campaigning to use the NBN rollout to put cables underground, fund more childcare centres and reintroduce council wards.

Scott says ”there’s a lot of people telling me that they’re feeling forgotten” in the electorate. Now may not be the time, and hers not the pitch, to compel them to remember Labor.

What is certain is that the so-called “Get Clover” or dual role legislation passed by the O’Farrell government in April will banish Moore, Sydney’s state MP, from one job this month. She is opting to leave Macquarie Street, if elected for her third term today, saying her husband thinks the only way she’ll leave public office entirely is ”carried out in a coffin”.

But the poll will be a chance to put some of the rhetoric around the loved or loathed politician to rest. We’ll learn if the opposition to her policies has been overstated, or if Sydney does indeed want a different council, one with a different vision of the city’s future.

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