The Joke's on London Voters

The race for mayor of London is such a compelling political drama — some would say circus — that it will be hard to fill the British entertainment vacuum after the May 1 election.

The contest has more than a dozen candidates, but the two front-runners have become the focus of the most attention, almost as if they had scripted one-liners for each other and booked themselves as a double act.

The incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone, is a combative dyed-in-the-wool leftist. He is widely portrayed as a class warrior (he used to be called "Red Ken"), who has ruled City Hall with an iron fist for eight years, installed a controversial congestion zone fee for cars and has defied critics who say he has given jobs to corrupt officials.

"If I believe what I read in the papers, I wouldn't vote for myself," said Livingstone, who is a member of Britain's governing Labor Party.

The mayor's main challenger, Boris Johnson, is conservative, eccentric, and from a privileged background. He also cultivates the image of a witty buffoon. Before running for London mayor, Johnson was most famous for his exits. He was fired from his first job, as a reporter at The Times newspaper, for reportedly making up a quote.

He then won a Conservative Party seat in the U.K. parliament, and was promoted to a prominent position as Shadow Cabinet Minister for the Arts, but was demoted for lying about an extra-marital affair. When found out, Johnson responded with one of his trademark dismissive quips, calling the allegations "an inverted pyramid of piffle."

Livingstone and Johnson have lately been joined by the third-ranked contender, former Police Chief Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party, in a series of televised debates.

The encounters have been less notable for bringing the candidates' positions into sharp relief than for bringing out their personalities. And given that none of them plans to make any fundamental changes in the way London is run, personality may well be the deciding factor at the polls.

Here is a taste from a recent TV debate. A member of the public audience likened former Prime Minister Tony Blair to champagne and caviar, then asked each candidate to describe themselves as food.

Livingstone said his leadership was like a diet of fruit and vegetables, "… because it's good for you and it helps save the environment because there are less cows."

Johnson, himself shaped somewhat like a potato with a large mop of blond hair, instead mysteriously compared himself to discount cereal: "Cheaper and better value," he said.

Johnson also called Livingstone "Mayor Leaving-Soon."

There are serious issues behind the frivolous exchanges. The mayor of London has at least three huge responsibilities: running a massive public transportation system, planning the city's future development, including the 2012 Summer Olympics, and trying to keep about 7.5 million people safe from crime and terrorism.

And there are thorny social, financial and environmental problems to handle. For instance, immigration, legal and illegal, has become a sensitive issue.

Livingstone has been accused by his critics of turning a blind eye to what they claim is a heavy influx of immigrants who place a burden on the social services net.

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