LOS ANGELES — THE great Los Angeles mayor's race, in which everyone seems to be running except a song-and-dance person - actually, one of those is running, too, is entering its final weeks with a cluster of front-runners emerging and the public just beginning to realize an election is happening.
The 24 candidates competing in the first open election for the top job since 1929 are fanning out across the city doing what Los Angeles candidates do: raising money, lining up celebrity endorsements, getting their mugs on TV, and appearing in endless forums - some of which draw no audience and others of which draw no candidates.
One contender daily shouts his views from a street corner. Another is conducting his campaign on foot across inner-city areas.
Crime, jobs, and the state of local schools have been predominant concerns. Yet the campaign is also yielding divergent views of what Los Angeles will look like tomorrow.
"Everyone more or less has their mind made up that Los Angeles is a city in crisis," says historian Kevin Starr, who teaches at the University of Southern California (USC). "But you can't be too polarizing. You may be able to get in the runoff with 12 to 16 percent of the vote."
No candidate seems likely to win 50 percent in the April 20 election to replace Mayor Tom Bradley, who is retiring after 20 years in office. Thus a June 8 runoff seems inevitable between the top two finishers.
The race comes at a critical juncture. The nation's second-largest city faces many of the challenges confronting urban America: a yawning budget gap, worries about crime, struggles to reform public schools.
But it also has some woes of its own: an economic slowdown worse than in many cities, concern about renewed rioting as the Rodney King trial unfolds in the courts, a pessimism that this ethnically diverse city is too Balkanized to govern.
The leader in the early polls is City Councilman Michael Woo. The Asian-American is a champion of Los Angeles as a multiethnic metropolis. He wants to make the city more livable for immigrants, the poor, and minorities. Yet he also talks about crime, the disaffection of the middle class, and change.
Perhaps making the most rapid rise, though, has been businessman Richard Riordan. A self-made millionaire who is the lone Republican among the top contenders, he trumpets fiscal austerity, toughness on crime, and lean government.
Mr. Riordan presents himself as a political outsider "tough enough to turn L.A. around." He has pumped $3 million of his own money into the race, enhancing his familiarity with voters but drawing criticism that this "Ross Perot of Los Angeles politics" is out to buy his way to City Hall.
"This would be a classic matchup of Riordan as the old Los Angeles - the white, male-dominated, establishment power structure - versus the new L.A. of Mike Woo, positioning himself as the one able to lead a multiethnic city into the 21st century," says Prof. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate School.
Still, the race isn't a duet yet. Clustered in a second tier of contenders are state Assemblyman Richard Katz, a moderate who has a strong base of support in the politically important San Fernando Valley, and City Councilman Joel Wachs, who appeals to suburbanites as well as Jews, gays, and the elderly.
Businessman Nick Patsaouras, who has been on television the past month with detailed commercials about what he would do for the city, is considered competitive. Lawyer J. Stanley Sanders, one of two politically prominent black candidates, improved his standing among long shot contenders with a recent endorsement from entertainer Bill Cosby.
Others in the hunt: City Councilman Nate Holden, the other leading black candidate; former Deputy Mayor Linda Griego; former Ambassador to Mexico Julian Nava; and another past deputy mayor, Tom Houston, who has made friends and enemies by raising concerns about illegal immigration.
"It is still volatile out there," says Allan Hoffenblum, a strategist working for Mr. Patsaouras. "We could end up with two candidates in a runoff that nobody has heard of yet."
Turnout will be an important factor in a contest that could be decided by a few hundred ballots.
So will money. To stand out in a crowd of 24, the top contenders are relying heavily on TV advertising. It has worked well so far for Woo and Riordan, two of the flushest candidates.
"At least in the early stages, the person who has the bucks has the best shot," says Larry Berg, a USC political scientist.