- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

LONDON — Britain’s showcase political race of the year is turning into a two-horse contest that pits a salamander-loving socialist mayor against a charismatic, if gaffe-prone, challenger, whom opinion polls predict may win.

The incumbent is Laborite Ken Livingstone, the “Red Ken” of Britain’s 1980s who became the capital’s first elected mayor in 2000 and easily won a second four-year term in 2004.

Mr. Livingstone faces a challenger whom even he describes as “the most formidable opponent I’ve faced.”

That would be Boris Johnson, a tousle-haired, strawberry blond Conservative, who ranks as one of the nation’s political idiosyncratics, claiming descent from a Russian slave and an ancestor who served as interior minister in the last Ottoman Turk government.

It was Mr. Johnson who gave Mr. Livingstone the latest sobriquet “King Newt,” because of his hobby of keeping amphibians as pets.

When London’s voters go to the polls on May 1, the winner they choose will gain control over a $22 billion a year budget, the run-up to the British capital’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games and control over one of the largest police forces of any city in the world.

With the weeks turning into days before the vote, Mr. Johnson has established a clear lead in a series of public opinion polls. By mid-March, the YouGov polling organization, in a survey for London’s Evening Standard newspaper, suggested he was favored by 49 percent of voters, 12 points ahead of Mr. Livingstone.

By early April, that margin had grown to 49 percent to 36 percent for Mr. Johnson, which spurred Mr. Livingstone to remark that “Boris is the most formidable opponent I’ve faced.”

It also prompted an irate Tessa Jowell, the government minister running Labor’s campaign for Mr. Livingstone, to ordain that their opponent henceforth be referred to as “Boris Johnson” or “the Conservative candidate” — because simply “Boris” made him sound too friendly and accessible.

Mr. Johnson is campaigning on a slogan that many Americans may find familiar: “Time for a Change.”

He promises to crack down on violent crime and to promote safer public transportation, more recycling and reductions in spending on bureaucracy and an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Mr. Livingstone is in his bid for a third term in bagging one of Europe’s biggest direct-vote mandates — only the presidencies of France and Portugal are bigger, political pundits say.

But both candidates have a history of gaffes.

Mr. Johnson has been castigated throughout this campaign for referring to black people, in public remarks more than five years ago, as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.”

Mr. Johnson later apologized.

Mr. Livingstone, for his part, is no stranger to controversy of this sort. In 2005, he landed in hot water with Jewish organizations when he compared a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard newspaper — which the mayor loathes — to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

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