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A Delicious Dead Heat

March 01, 2005

Unless another tiger goes on the prowl or a mudslide makes it all the way to City Hall, the candidates for mayor of Los Angeles finally have the spotlight to themselves for the week leading up to next Tuesday's election. Well, almost to themselves. True, KCBS chose to show an Oscar wrap-up Monday night instead of the candidate debate it cosponsored. Hey, somebody has to set priorities. (A tape-delayed broadcast will air on Channel 2 today from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.)

We hope voters take the mayoral race seriously, even if certain TV executives don't. According to the latest Times poll, on today's front page, the March 8 election is shaping up as one in which a handful of votes could determine the outcome.

Because no candidate in this field is expected to win the majority needed for outright victory, the top two vote-getters will probably head for a May 17 runoff. The poll, with a 4-percentage-point margin of error, shows a three-way dead heat for those two slots, with City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa at 24%, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg at 21% and incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn at 20%.

It's unusual enough for an incumbent to be in such a position when it comes to making the runoff. But Hahn may be in deeper trouble than his raw numbers show. Just 36% of likely voters polled say Los Angeles is on the right track, with 49% deciding it's on the wrong track. And just 26% say they want the city to continue the policies of the Hahn administration, while 65% say they want a new direction.

An explanation for Hahn's low marks can be found in the characteristics voters most desired in a mayor. Honesty was most frequently cited, with "a strong leader" next. Members of the Hahn administration are under investigation for allegedly awarding contracts to contributors. Hahn himself is so low-key as to be almost invisible as a leader.

The Times has endorsed Hertzberg and Villaraigosa against Hahn. If they both win runoff slots, they could give Los Angeles the contest it deserves.

The ads that will be blitzing the airwaves during this final week portray Hahn as livelier than anyone has seen him in four years. Hertzberg comes across as Gulliver towering over Los Lilliput. So if you are just tuning in, a broader view of the candidates can be found in The Times' archives of its coverage of the race (www.latimes.com/news/politics). The website of the city's public-access television channel (www.la36.org/la3605009.htm) carries streaming video of past debates.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, we might add, not only has aides tape the debates but claims to actually enjoy watching them. We hope he didn't set his TiVo to catch Monday's, only to end up with the Oscar recap.

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