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Gay Candidate
Adds Flavor to London Mayor Race

Gay Candidate
Adds Flavor to London Mayor Race

For Londoners these days, it's the greatest show on earth, a clash between two heavyweight individualists battling to be their mayor.

Ken Livingstone, the incumbent, is an old socialist who is fond of Fidel Castro, thinks George W. Bush is the biggest threat to the world, and raises great crested newts in his free time.

His challenger, Boris Johnson, is a shaggy-haired, party-loving Tory, a product of Britain's most snobbish schools, famous for his gaffes, his wit...and for being famous.

For all the eccentricities and entertainment value, the vote has national implications in the struggle between Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labour Party government seems to be losing momentum after 11 years in power, and David Cameron, the up-and-coming Conservative Party leader, who would get a valuable power base in London for the party with a Johnson victory.

Livingstone, 62, had initially been expected to cruise to reelection on the back of his leadership after the 2005 terror attacks on London public transport and his environmentally friendly policies. But some polls put Johnson, 43, in the lead, benefiting from voter fatigue with Livingstone as the May 1 vote nears.

''Boris may well win, though we'll have to work very hard to make it happen,'' said Malcolm Duff-Miller, one of 30 supporters gathered to hear Johnson at Ealing's Conservative Club last week.

''He's intelligent, he's funny, and I think he's truthful. That's one of the reasons he gets in trouble -- he always says what he believes. But his heart is in the right place, and Ken has been abysmal. His egotism has gotten worse and worse. It's time he went.''

Adding to the spice is third-party candidate, Brian Paddick, an articulate, openly gay former police commander whose backers include pop giant Elton John. Polls show he has no chance, but his focus on crime and policing draws attention.

Class conflict is a key feature of the occasionally nasty campaign.

Livingstone presents himself as a man of the people while running pro-business policies that have allowed London to flourish as a financial capital. Johnson, a former editor of the conservative weekly Spectator and now a member of parliament, picked up his upper-class accent at elite boarding school Eton and Oxford University.

''The data shows the minority ethnic community is more likely to be Ken supporters, so inner London is very much for Ken, and outer London is very much Boris territory,'' said Martin Boon, a spokesman for the ICM polling company, which has gauged voter sentiment in recent weeks.

Both candidates have made memorable and career-imperiling gaffes.

In a 2002 article in The Daily Telegraph, Johnson referred to Africans as ''piccaninnies'' (he apologized); he once offended Liverpudlians by saying they were wallowing in ''victim status'' after one of their own was taken hostage and killed in Iraq (he apologized); and he described the people of Papua New Guinea as cannibals and chief-killers (he was sorry about that too).

One of his biggest challenges, analysts say, is convincing voters who know him as a frequent guest on TV comedy shows that he would make a serious mayor for a city of 7.4 million people that is a world financial center and the host of the 2012 Olympics.

Livingstone, a throwback to the heady days of the late '60s when revolution was in the air and on the airwaves, has welcomed Islamic extremists to London, and was suspended from his post for a month after comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard. When the U.S. ambassador claimed diplomatic immunity from having to pay a ''congestion charge'' on cars entering central London, Livingstone called him a ''chiseling little crook.''

There's sex too.

Livingstone recently acknowledged fathering three children with two women in addition to the two children he has with his longtime partner. Johnson, a father of four who has made fun of his own marital infidelities, has declined to criticize the incumbent.

''The mayor's private life is his private life,'' Johnson told the Associated Press. ''I want to concentrate on the issues that matter to Londoners.''

Johnson is focusing his campaign on London's outer boroughs, where many affluent voters who own cars resent the $16 daily congestion charge. Mindful, perhaps, that London conservatives are stereotyped as rich white English males, he has spoken mangled ancient Greek to Greek voters (he learned it in school) and told Muslims that his great-grandfather studied the Koran (Johnson has Turkish roots). And in leafy west London, he assures voters that he will protect their precious gardens.

Even Livingstone's critics praise his work in the tense hours and days after the 2005 terrorist attacks, but he has recently been hurt by cronyism allegations related to funds handled by the London Development Agency, a branch of the mayor's office devoted to developing business opportunities and infrastructure.

''I'm sure there is corruption,'' said Johnson. ''There is no doubt about it. The London Development Agency, in particular, needs a full clear-out and change.''

Livingstone has embraced London's diversity, winning friends among minority voters in dozens of communities, whether by sponsoring cultural festivals at City Hall or denouncing Americans. He says his congestion charge is a success being studied in other cities around the world that are looking to regulate car usage.

''What we've shown is that in a big modern complex city you can get people out of their cars and onto public transport,'' Livingstone told the AP. ''We're the only city in the world to get 5% of the people out of their cars.''

But on the campaign trail, he lacks Johnson's star power.

''You can't escape the fact that Boris is a celebrity with high visibility,'' said Tony Travers, a political science professor at the London School of Economics. ''And the truth is, Britain is totally in awe of the concept of personality and celebrity, so that has been an advantage.'' (AP)

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Mike Grippi