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London mayoral race: a contest of eccentrics

Outspoken conservative Boris Johnson leads 'Red' Ken Livingstone in the polls.

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London has only ever had one elected mayor, but that may change on May 1 when Livingstone faces the toughest challenge yet to his eight-year term.

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Some experts say there are broader factors at play in the sudden emergence of Johnson, a cavalier politician who until recently was more likely to be seen making a fool of himself on a satirical television news quiz than meeting ordinary Britons on the streets.

"It's partly because British [voters] have a track record of not liking powerful politicians to stay in office for ever and ever," says Mr. Travers. Livingstone, he says, is in danger of suffering from the ennui that removed Ed Koch, the former New York mayor.

Johnson is an alumnus of Eton and Oxford University, who favors small government and a slightly disheveled look. But he has an entire back catalog of off-the-cuff remarks to make even the most forgiving voter cringe.

As a journalist and politician, he has managed to offend entire cities (Liverpool, Portsmouth) as well as a vital London constituency when he used the words "pickaninnies" and "watermelon smiles" to describe black people.

Some have derided him as an eccentric with little experience. Livingstone said that his rival's management experience was limited to running the Spectator magazine, "where the most difficult decision was where to take the staff for lunch."

But Johnson has ideas and a rhetoric that the public likes. He has focused on crime, pointing out that it is time to come to grips with the violence that has seen 40 young people killed on the streets on London in the past 16 months. He also wants to take away free public transport passes from delinquent teenagers and put more police to the transit system. He has borrowed ideas from New York (the city of his birth) including tackling fare evasion and setting up a mayor's fund for youth projects.

He's a smaller-government conservative. "We live in an age," says his father, Stanley Johnson, a former European parliamentarian, "when the state does appear in many aspects of our lives, and when Mrs. Thatcher spoke of rolling back the frontiers of the state, that rang a bell with me and I think it does with Boris."

London resident Andrew Szamosy likes Johnson's law-and-order talk. "Ken's been in long enough; now it's time for someone else to take the reins."

But Nell Blaine, a youth worker, is not so impressed. "I won't vote for him because I think he's a buffoon," she says. "Ken's done a really good job. Public transport is better, the place is cleaner."