Romney, Bachmann or Perry? (Or Palin?) There’s plenty of time to decide: The election’s not until 2012.

But McFarlane, Redmond or Williams? Voting for a new Raleigh mayor starts in five weeks. That’s right, it’s less than six weeks from the end of the filing period to the beginning of early votingand none of the candidates is exactly a household name.

In fact, for most voters, Nancy McFarlane, Billie Redmond and Randall Williams are still trying to make a good first impression. How’re they doing? Let’s put it this way: Some sad-sack candidates ran against Mayor Charles Meeker toward the end of his 10-year hold on the office. Now that Meeker’s stepping down, quality candidates have emerged. They are three very accomplished people who’ve taken different paths to a mayoral campaign and are far apart in how they view their role of mayor.

McFarlane is a pharmacist-businesswoman and the two-term District A city councillor, representing North Raleigh. She comes from a background of neighborhood leadership and believes the role of mayor is to engage citizens in city government. She’s ready to address the nitty-gritty issues of stormwater runoff, transit services and good planning. She’s done it for four years.

Williams is an obstetrician/ surgeon with a lot of excellent public service to his credit but no hands-on government experience. When he talks about being mayor, he emphasizes helping to boost volunteerism in the community, but says nothing about what goes on at City Hall. For that, Raleigh has a city manager, he says. What it needs is a mayor who is involved in the community and inspires folks to do good works for one other by doing good works himself.

Redmond, CEO of a commercial real estate firm, falls somewhere between Williams’ noble approach and McFarlane’s attention to detail. Redmond has a string of board directorships and Chamber of Commerce leadership roles to her credit butlike Williamsno government experience. She is a natural-born marketer and promoter. The role of mayor, as she sees it: make sure Raleigh’s well run (and it is, she says), then sell it to the country as the best city anywhere to grow a business.

To be sure, these are degrees of difference. The city manager does run the government day-to-day, and none of the three candidates propose to run it for him (or run him). Still, on first impression, we have a candidate, McFarlane, who enjoys a good council committee meeting; a candidate, Redmond, who is comfortable in a boardroom; and a candidate, Williams, who would rather get other people to have meetings.

Some further notes and some questions for the weeks ahead:

Before his formal announcement last week, I’d never met Williams. I liked him. He’s an extrovert and has a lot of energy. (He gets up at 5:45 every day to run, he said, and from 6:15 to 7 every morning he’s at his desk if you need to call or email.) He promised repeatedly not to be a politician, not to use the mayor’s office as a stepping stone to some other office, and notdespite his Republican Party affiliationto be partisan.

One thing Williams has going for him is great pictures. They show him in operating rooms in Iraq and Haiti, where he has volunteered, and running a marathon in Israel. Williams announced his candidacy at Broughton High School, where his son played on a state championship soccer team and where Williams, by his count, has put in 2,000 volunteer hours as co-founder and organizer of the Broughton Athletics Hall of Fame. (It’s well done.)

About his volunteerism idea, he used the example of the Wake County school system. He won’t question how Superintendent Tony Tata handles the issues there, he said. What he will do is ask Tata what the schools need and call out the troops. “As mayor, I’m going to get people involved in the schools,” he said. “I’m not talking about the school board race or the assignment policy, but get people to volunteerthere are hundreds of ways that citizens of Raleigh can help make the schools better.”

The question for Williams: What does he mean when he calls himself a fiscal conservative? Former Mayor Tom Fetzer is helping him with his campaign and attended his announcement. Fetzer, when he took office in the ’90s with his fellow Republicans, slashed city taxes and eviscerated the government. Williams, also a Republican, says he knows Fetzer “not from politics,” adding that he, Williams, is “not a hard-line ideologue.”

Redmond makes two extroverts in this race. She’s also forceful. A mutual friend, a man, described her as a 4-foot-11 woman with the personality of a 6-foot-2 man. He meant that as a compliment. Redmond announced her candidacy at the Occidental Building on the corner of Wade Avenue and Daniels Street near Cameron Village. She bought and renovated it a decade ago and uses part of it as a business headquarters. She usually brokers the deals. This one she did herself.

Redmond is vying with Williams for the Republican vote in this race, but also with McFarlanewho’s an unaffiliated voterfor the centrist and women’s votes. The Wake County Republican Party endorsed Redmond for mayor.

As a businessperson, Redmond’s contributed money to candidates in both parties, and she hosted an event at her home for businesswomen when McFarlane first ran for the District A seat in 2007.

Redmond views the mayor’s job as “setting the policy and visionary direction of the city” and, in concert with the manager and the City Council, bringing “best practices” to city government whether they arise from within the bureaucracy or come from outside. “It’s a two-way street,” she says.

What sets her apart, Redmond says, is her ability to “be the face and voice of the city” on television and in conferences about the future of great cities. “We really should be leading lots of thought discussions, even across the nation.” By “we” she means Raleigh’s mayor, who should “brand” Raleigh as the new national paradigm for high-quality economic development. The competition among cities is fast and furious, she says, which is why she’s up for it.

One question for Redmond, though, is an old one. When it comes to development schemes that harm rather than enhance existing neighborhoods, which side will she be on? She says she’ll strike the right balance. Another question: How much of the Dorothea Dix tract does she envision for development when she says she’s “one of the compromise people” on someday turning the 306 acres into a park?

McFarlane is more quiet than outspoken, but she’s much improved as a public speaker since she first ran for the City Council. She’s also a good listener, which helps in her role as chair of the council’s comprehensive plan committee, where citizens vie against developers in a process that is anything but citizen-friendly if the committee’s in a hurry. She announced her election bid at City Hall. It fit.

McFarlane isn’t one to assume that all is well in city government, and if it isn’t, the manager will tell her. Her experience as a neighborhood leader, she says, is what taught her to question the status quo. For example, not so long ago the city’s rules for stormwater and silt runoff were good for developers but very bad for the downstream neighborhoods and water quality in Falls Lake. That’s the issue that first got her involved with city government; as a council member she helped write a stronger ordinance that will save the city lots of money in the long run. “You can pay now or pay later,” McFarlane says, when it comes to enforcing environmental and quality-of-life standards.

McFarlane is an unaffiliated voter, but she’s generally on the progressive side of the issues and should attract most Democratic votes. As co-owner, with her husband, of a very successful pharmaceutical services business, she has crossover appeal. The combination may be enough to win the election outright in October, but if no candidate gets 50 percent, the top twoprobably McFarlane and either Redmond or Williamswould advance to a runoff in November.

McFarlane likes to talk about the “teamwork” on City Council that’s moved Raleigh ahead during Meeker’s 10 years as mayor and has put the city on many lists of best places to live and work. “We must be doing something right,” she says.

No question, McFarlane’s been a close ally of Meeker’s, and she’s his choice to succeed him. Her Achilles heel is probably the ill-fated, $200 million public safety tower that Meeker pushed and she voted for. It wasn’t a good idea, and at a time when public debt is a huge issue, it was a very bad idea politically.