PRESIDENT BUSH has yet to set foot in San Francisco since taking office 33 months ago. Although he's visiting Southern California to inspect the wildfire devastation, the itinerary doesn't include a detour north. Which is unfortunate. San Franciscans go to the polls today to choose a new mayor, and few cities stage a better political circus.

You can't blame the president for keeping his distance from Northern California's "Babylon by the Bay." Bush received only 16.2 percent of the vote in San Francisco County, half his percentage in Los Angeles County (statewide, Bush's support was 41.7 percent). San Franciscans were just as hostile to the Governator. Arnold Schwarzenegger received only 19 percent of the county vote in last month's recall; statewide, he got 48.6 percent. Eighty percent of the county voted to keep Gray Davis in office. Four out of five San Franciscans agree: They're out of touch with the rest of California.

Yet, if the polls stay to form, this liberal bastion is about to turn right--and to a candidate who's shunned liberal orthodoxy--to solve one of its most vexing social problems.

MEET CITY SUPERVISOR GAVIN NEWSOM. He's young--having turned 36 last month--slim, moussed, and looking like he stepped straight out of the pages of GQ. Newsom is the embodiment of the metrosexual ideal. Like Arnold, Newsom is married to a TV personality. That's Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, a former lingerie model turned city prosecutor, who's currently a legal analyst for both ABC News and CNN.

And he benefits from having the right connections. Newsom's grandfather was a confidant of former California governor Pat Brown. His father, a retired state appellate justice, is a longtime pal of Jerry Brown. His aunt was married to the brother-in-law of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. An ex-girlfriend married the actor Don Johnson (okay, maybe that's not a bragging point, getting dumped for "Nash Bridges"). Newsom's political godfather is the man he seeks to replace, Willie Brown. In 1996, Brown put Newsom on the city Parking and Traffic Commission. A year later, Brown appointed Newsom to the board of supervisors, filling what locals call the panel's "straight, white male" slot.

But it's Newsom's ties to one of America's most prominent families, the oil-rich Gettys, that raises eyebrows. Over the past decade, Newsom has created a mini-empire of limited partnerships and holding companies that span from Squaw Valley to Maui. That includes wineries, trendy eateries, and nightclubs. The Getty family has provided financial muscle for his businesses--even a friendly loan for Newsom's home in Pacific Heights. And that has purists wondering if Newsom would be too beholden to the city's upper crust should he win office.

THEN AGAIN, Newsom's candidacy gives bleeding hearts a bad case of heartburn, as he tends to stray from what passes for mainstream San Francisco ideology. The supervisor has proposed reinstating the city's job tax credit. He also wants to revisit the city's payroll tax. Newsom correctly sees it as a hindrance to biotech firms that might want to set up shop in San Francisco.

But that's small potatoes compared with the one issue that separates Newsom from his mayoral rivals: His plan to fix the city's homelessness problem.

Last November, Newsom's "Care Not Cash" ballot measure put San Francisco in line with other U.S. cities that have cut cash grants for the homeless in favor of in-kind services like food vouchers and better shelter programs. Newsom, who contends that general assistance grants feed substance abuse problems, called for cutting grants then as high as $410 a month to as little as $59 a month. The measure was blocked in the courts. However, the board of supervisors passed an amended version of Newsom's plan--"Real Housing, Real Care"--that continues the spirit-over-cash idea. On today's ballot, San Franciscans once again face a referendum on homelessness. Newsom's Proposition M calls for a crackdown on aggressive panhandling and panhandling on buses, city streets, freeway ramps, parking lots, outside check-cashing businesses, and not within 20 feet of ATMs (violators would be fined, or placed in treatment programs--that is, if the police decide to enforce the law). Critics contend that Newsom is trying to exploit the homeless issue to win the mayor's race, just as he used "Care Not Cash" to lay the groundwork for his campaign (the anti-M campaign calls itself the "Committee to End Political Scapegoating"). His supporters say he's the only candidate offering a sensible solution.

IF NEWSOM REALLY IS that Machiavellian, it's only because he's smart enough to recognize that San Francisco stands today where New York was pre-Giuliani. Not only does the city remain mired in a recession triggered by the bursting of the tech bubble (think unemployment and commercial real estate vacancies), its physical condition cries out for change. Fewer cities are as postcard-pretty, yet visitors rudely discover streets reeking of urine and feces and numerous and aggressive panhandlers and vagrants.

And the city's liberal ruling class doesn't seem to have an answer.

San Francisco spends roughly $100 million a year on shelter, food, treatment, and other services for the homeless, according to a 2002 budget analyst report. That's for a group comprised of between 8,000 and 15,000 homeless (depending on whether you listen to city officials or homeless advocates). Using that lower-end figure, the city spends $13,000 a year on each member of the homeless population. By contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District's per-pupil spending in 2002 was a little over $7,300.

But as the mayoral contest shows, San Francisco's political elite is at least a decade behind the rest of the nation when it comes to ending welfare dependency. One mayoral hopeful, supervisor Matt Gonzalez, told the San Francisco Chronicle that "Care Not Cash" "represented a false premise and failed to address the root causes of homelessness and real strategies for helping the homeless." Another candidate, civil rights lawyer Angela Alioto, says she'd establish 22 "triage" centers to guide homeless people into appropriate programs. Supervisor Tom Ammiano would create supportive housing for mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless people. City treasurer Susan Leal talks streamlined bureaucracy. Newsom is the only major candidate talking tough love.

Which might explain why today's vote isn't so much a question of who finishes first but whether or not Newsom can be kept under 50 percent, forcing a runoff next month. This is what happened four years ago when Brown found himself in a runoff against Ammiano, who'd launched a write-in campaign three weeks before Election Day. San Francisco's business community, fearing the prospect of an ultra-liberal Ammiano administration, rallied to Brown's side and gave him another four years.

The same dynamic could occur this time around, especially if Newsom ends up in a runoff against his fellow supervisor Gonzalez, who three years ago defected from the Democrats to the Green Party. He wants to raise the city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour (the highest in the state), and give noncitizens the right to vote in school board elections. Gonzalez also is no friend of Willie Brown's, having supported ballot measures which weakened the mayor's power. Once, he walked out on Brown's State of the City address.

No wonder President Bush is staying away. Those wildfires probably look tame compared with San Francisco politics.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

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