SAN FRANCISCO — If opposites attract, what of two men as similar as Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa: bold, charismatic and young enough to aspire beyond the cities they run and reflect?
The result could be a novel contest pitting the state's two marquee mayors in a fight for governor. Never mind that San Francisco's Newsom and Los Angeles' Villaraigosa both disavow any thoughts of future office, insisting they are utterly consumed with their jobs at hand.
Villaraigosa: "I'm focused on it and nothing else right now."
Newsom: "I don't think about that for two seconds."
Forget the fact that there is already a gubernatorial contest well underway involving neither of the two men. While Republican incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger would be term-limited if he wins in November, a victory by Democrat Phil Angelides would presumably put him in a fight for reelection in 2010, probably forestalling a Newsom-Villaraigosa matchup until at least 2014.
A birds-fly, fish-swim sense of inevitability surrounds the two Democratic mayors and their political futures, placing them, if not exactly on a collision course, then on a path that has produced a certain tension among several of their more eager and aggressive advisors. "It's very much on everyone's radar screen," said one political strategist who occasionally counsels Villaraigosa.
Each side accuses the other of being obsessed and stirring trouble just to draw attention. The Newsom camp suggests that Villaraigosa is trying to lure the city's beloved 49ers football team to Los Angeles. (Untrue, the word from Los Angeles.) Allies of Villaraigosa grumble that Newsom crossed his southern counterpart by allowing education aides to weigh in against Villaraigosa's school takeover proposal. (Not so, the response from San Francisco.)
The result has been more than one staff-level telephone call to unruffle feathers, along with rampant speculation about a race that could highlight a north-south cleavage -- cultural, political, demographic -- like no other in California's history. "Two different cities," said state historian Kevin Starr. "Two different kinds of people."
But first there are the many similarities between the two mayors that help fuel the competition, real or imagined.
As they move about town -- for them, sitting at City Hall is like being snared in a trap -- both men exude a confidence just this side of swagger, slapping hands and acknowledging well-wishers hollering from rolled-down car windows. \o7"Hey, \f7\o7m\f7\o7ayor! Over here!"
\f7\o7 \f7There is a crackling energy and a presence -- the gleaming teeth, the perfect hair, the stylish tailoring -- that makes even the compact Villaraigosa seem larger than he is. (At 6 foot 3, Newsom clearly has his Los Angeles counterpart topped in at least one area.)
Neither has shied from tackling big issues confronting their famously fractious cities. Newsom has worked to establish the first universal healthcare system of any municipality in the country. Villaraigosa pushed through a substantial fee hike to pay for more police and, after scaling back his ambitions somewhat, is edging closer to winning some control over the city's troubled public schools.
Both have dealt with the fallout of race-tinged scandals affecting their police departments.
And both enjoy unusually high national profiles as leaders of a political vanguard: Newsom, the push for legalizing same-sex marriage; Villaraigosa, the empowerment of the nation's growing Latino population.
So naturally there is talk of rivalry and a sense of the two men circling each other, even if both vehemently deny any such thing.
Villaraigosa: "I have a great relationship with Gavin. I think he's one of America's finest mayors."
Newsom: "My sense is he's extraordinarily popular and he's done a very good job."
There are differences, of course, which make comparisons all the more compelling.
Villaraigosa, 53, is the former street tough, still with an edge beneath his pressed white shirt, peach tie and navy blue suit. He is coiled, even when draped across an armchair in his grand City Hall office.
Newsom, 38, is the son of a judge, with the chest-out stride and breezy air of the comfortably well-off. He is supple, whether dealing with a gaggle of Sacramento reporters or the hard cases in San Francisco's tough Bayview neighborhood.
"That's my fault," he says when an angry unemployed man confronts him on the sidewalk over a city program that helps parolees find jobs.
That is something else about Newsom: Of the two, he is the less guarded, quicker to find fault with himself, far more irreverent. He jokes about his appearance, about personal integrity. As he signs autographs for sixth-graders during a weekly walk through their school, he tells them his signature "will be worth a lot if I'm indicted or arrested."
Perhaps it is the arc of their public lives. For Villaraigosa, a labor organizer and community activist, politics was a way up; for Newsom, a prosperous businessman, a move over.