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.

Johnson has been forced to deny opponents' claims that he is anti-immigrant, or, in code word, against ethnic minorities. Johnson responds by calling himself a "one-man melting pot," who has Turkish roots and a wife who is half Indian.

The memory of the July 7, 2005 terror attacks on the city's transportation system that killed 52 people is never far from anyone's mind, and some experts say that more attacks are likely.

So when Livingstone hosted a radical Muslim cleric who had repeatedly endorsed suicide bombings, he had a lot of public explaining to do. He has also upset Jewish groups and was briefly suspended from office after accusing a Jewish journalist of behaving like a Nazi concentration camp guard. Livingstone later said that he insults all journalists, so why should he exclude a Jewish journalist?

One of the most high-profile issues has been the infamous congestion zone's $15 daily charge for driving into the city. Livingstone had vowed to increase that to $50 for big gas guzzlers. He cites four-by-four SUVs, which are nicknamed "Chelsea tractors" because rich women drive their "posh farm trucks" to exclusive neighborhoods to shop and drop their children off at private fee-paying schools.

Thus, the proposed new turbo charge for big vehicles is seen as the latest frontline in the centuries old class war here. Johnson says he would scrap the $50 congestion charge. But he says he would not do away with the existing $15 fee. That in itself reinforces the candidates' general agreement on the need for reducing auto congestion.

Recent polls have shown them running neck and neck. Livingstone has a big edge in experience as mayor, but that also makes him part of the ruling Labor Party's political establishment, which is suffering from its worst national poll numbers in 20 years. And with the global credit crisis threatening British home prices, middle-class voters are not happy with the status quo.

If Livingstone loses the election, it may well have less to do with his stewardship as mayor than his affiliation with the politically troubled Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

And if Johnson wins, it will probably be because he was in the right place at a time when change was inevitable. But if that were to happen, Johnson would suddenly be faced with one of the world's most stressful, high-profile jobs, for which he has no training.