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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Personalities Clash in London Race

LONDON -- An election next year for the mayor of London is shaping up to be an unusually brutal battle that exposes one of the country's deepest social divisions: class.

The two candidates likely to face off in the vote -- still eight months away -- are among the most colorful and distinct in British politics.

A contest between Labour Party incumbent Ken Livingstone and Conservative politician Boris Johnson would show the left-right divide in British politics is alive as ever, and may leave roughly half the city loathing the winner.

London-born Livingstone went to a state school and made his mark as mayor by charging cars to drive into the center of the capital to curb traffic; he has been maligned for dalliances with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

His likely opponent Johnson -- front-runner for the Conservative mayoral nomination -- is an Old Etonian member of parliament for Henley, a well-heeled town near London that hosts a royal rowing regatta.

With his trademark mop of blond hair, Johnson, also a newspaper columnist, is renowned as an inveterate joker not shy of the occasional politically incorrect howler.

"Mayor elections attract people who are charismatic and have very strong views and have said things that they might regret. Both Ken and Boris have got track records of that," said Dermot Finch, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research's Centre for Cities.

A small sample of Londoners in a YouGov poll last month put support for Johnson at 46 percent, ahead of the sitting mayor at 40 percent.

Livingstone, labeled the "most odious man in Britain" by the Sun newspaper when he ran the London city council in the 1980s, has had his share of undiplomatic outbursts. He called the U.S. ambassador a "chiseling little crook" last year after the embassy refused to pay congestion charge bills.

"I would've been quite happy to crush the car with the American ambassador in it, quite frankly," said Livingstone, who has also likened a persistent local Jewish reporter to a "concentration camp guard."

A Livingstone-friendly think tank recently sifted through Johnson's many writings to argue that the former Conservative shadow minister for higher education concealed extreme right-wing views behind a buffoonish persona.

Among the quotes highlighted by the think tank was Johnson's description of the crowds that would greet former Prime Minister Tony Blair if he were to visit Democratic Republic of Congo.

"No doubt the AK-47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird," Johnson wrote in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

With the candidates' larger-than-life personalities taking center stage, it would be easy to forget that much is at stake. Greater London has 5.3 million eligible voters, meaning more people can cast ballots for the mayor than for any elected figure in Europe other than the presidents of France and Portugal, the city's electoral office said.

The mayor's core responsibilities -- public transport and urban development -- take on special importance in a city that contributes about 20 percent of British economic output and boasts more new share offerings than anywhere else in the world.

"This is not some sleepy backwater in rural Germany," said Justin Fisher, of London's Brunel University. "The powers of the London mayor are growing. And a number have become very high-profile."