San Francisco is a city, so it should come as no surprise that the two candidates in Tuesday’s runoff for mayor of America’s left-coast city are pretty much summed up by their websites.

The homepage of the website backing Democrat Gavin Newsom, the wealthy businessman who was groomed for the job by outgoing Mayor Willie Brown, features a great big picture of the candidate and former Vice President Al Gore seated in outrageously overstuffed easy chairs.

The homepage of Green Matt Gonzalez, the veteran public defender who forced his way into the runoff with the help of a powerful grassroots insurgency, features an invitation to attend the pre-election Punks for Matt event featuring Me First and the Gimme Gimmes at a club called Slim’s.

National political pundits are swooping into San Francisco to write articles about how the December 9 San Francisco mayoral contest is a test of the relative strength of the Democratic and Green parties. It isn’t. Even in San Francisco, where Green Ralph Nader actually beat Republican George W. Bush in many precincts in the 2000 presidential election, only three percent of registered voters have declared themselves to be Greens.

While Newsom would like to make the titularly nonpartisan contest a measure of party loyalty, Gonzalez has extended his appeal far beyond the Green base. Union endorsements have split between the two candidates, with many activist locals of unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees (SEIU) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) backing Gonzalez. The Green has also attracted endorsements from United Farm Workers union co-founder Dolores Huerta, actors Danny Glover and Martin Sheen, 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano and even some Democratic political clubs, including the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

Perhaps most significantly, Gonzalez has attracted enthusiastic support from young people who, for the most part, eschew election booths. The election-eve punk show is not a gimmick. It’s for real. Gonzalez actually appeals to punk rockers, and a lot of other people who tend to be turned off by politics.

That appeal made the contest close, even though Newsom retains significant advantages. Newsom’s establishment-backed candidacy will spend close to $4 million, compared with the Gonzalez campaign’s $400,000. But if Newsom wins, it will be on the “strength” of precisely the sort of politics that has cost Democrats their once-dominant position in federal, state and local politics nationally.

In San Francisco, one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic cities in the country, an uninspired Democratic campaign can still prevail. But that is no longer the case in most of the country. That’s because the Democratic leaders who are pouring their money and their energy into securing a win for Newsom continue to make the same mistakes that have cost their party its focus and, possibly, its future.

Make no mistake, the Democratic Party is taking this contest between two elected city supervisors extremely seriously. Having just surrendered the California governorship to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, worried by the losses of key big-city mayoralties around the country, and fretting about the prospect that a Green win would strengthen the hand of the left-leaning third party going into the critical 2004 presidential election, the California Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee are pulling out all the stops to elect Newsom. “Of course this is an important race for the Democratic Party,” says Newsom. “All eyes are on this race in the bastion of Democratic politics.”

Unfortunately for Newsom, San Francisco is not merely a bastion of Democratic politics. It is a bastion of progressive politics — particularly the sort of antiwar, anti-corporate politics that is most likely to appeal to disenfranchised young people. And Gonzalez–who quotes Sartre and Camus, helped start a small press that publishes poetry, rents a room in an apartment, does not drive a car, hangs out in the city’s music clubs and the Beat Generation’s City Lights bookstore, and regularly opens his City Hall office for art installations–the cool candidate in this year’s race. Beneath the bohemian image, of course, beats the heart of a sound politician; indeed, Newsom backers suggest that Gonzalez, who is backed by some of the developers he has criticized, is a more of a typical politician than he lets on.

But that criticism hasn’t really resonated in San Francisco, at least in part because Newsom has come across as so much more politically predictable than Gonzalez.

Newsom’s by-the-book campaign, which has been defined by its ideological emptiness, its coziness with business interests and it reliance on support from party icons like US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gore, is anything but cool. And even as some polls suggest that Gonzalez has caught up with Newsom in the closing days of the campaign, the Newsom camp shows no sign of getting it. Indeed, the man the party establishment still sees as its iconic leader, former President Bill Clinton, was scheduled to jet in today for a last-minute rev-up-the-troops rally at Newsom’s headquarters.

Clinton, who was last seen campaigning in California for ousted Governor Gray Davis, is a genuine star among core Democrats, in much the same way that former President Ronald Reagan is a hero to core Republicans. But in this year of appropriately impassioned anti-incumbency, turning to a former president — even one with something of a bad-boy image — is precisely the wrong approach.

In a city that demands at least a measure of style from its political leaders, Newsom’s campaign has been so stylistically inept as to appear almost Republican in character. Of course, Newsom is not a Republican. He’s got reasonably solid roots in the same San Francisco liberal tradition that produced former U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, current U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and outgoing Mayor Willie Brown. Newsom may not be as fiery as Burton or as smooth as Brown. But he is, by any measure, a mainstream Democrat. In fact, that may be the biggest burden the Newsom campaign carries.

Gonzalez backers have sought to make a big deal of the fact that Newsom has received campaign contributions from some prominent Republicans and from executives of corporations such as Bechtel, the defense contractor that was the target of last spring’s raucous antiwar protests in San Francisco. But Newsom is hardly the first Democrat to gather backing from the corporate sector and to try and appeal to the not-entirely-frenzied wing of the Grand Old Party. Wasn’t that the operating principle of the party as it lost first the House and the Senate in the 1990s and then the White House in 2000?

The problem for Democrats is that, if there is any place where their party ought to be edgier, more challenging of the status quo and more appealing to disenchanted voters — especially the young — it’s San Francisco. As pollster David Binder says, “If you’re living in the heartland of America and you want to be a movie star, you move to Los Angeles. If you’re living in the heartland of America and you are a progressive activist and you want to change the world to the left, you come to San Francisco.” If there is a candidate who captures that “change the world” sentiment, and who could teach the Democratic leadership a great deal about expanding the party’s appeal, it’s Matt Gonzalez. Polling shows that Gonzalez has done something most Democrats only dream of achieving: He has gotten people in their 20s and 30s interested in politics — or, at the least, in his brand of politics.

It is not merely a matter of issues.

Like Gonzalez, Newsom is a social liberal. To the view of the Newsom camp, which continues to view the contest through a very conventional political prism, that ought to equalize the appeal of the candidates. Indeed, Newsom told the New York Times, “Only in San Francisco can you be a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, pro-rent control and be considered conservative or moderate. I would be left on any national scale.”

But, of course, Gonzalez is further left. Where Newsom personally takes liberal stands on social issues, Gonzalez quit the Democratic Party in 2000 because he was angry that the party’s national candidates and platforms steered clear of the progressive agenda on social and economic issues. Like other Greens, and like a great many grassroots Democrats, he recognizes that progressives need to distinguish themselves not just on social issues but on the economic issues that define whether cities such as San Francisco will remain diverse and vibrant or simple become bastions of the rich. Gonzalez is far more willing to step on corporate toes. He supports expanded tenant protections, he wants to ban new chain stores in order to protect locally-owned businesses. He wants to use development fees to pay for child care. And, in perhaps his greatest distinction from Newsom, he supports setting the city’s minimum wage at $8.50 an hour.

Gonzalez’s determination to limit the ability of retail giants to impose their big-box stores on San Francisco’s neighborhoods, like his promise to tax developers and big businesses, marks him as someone who is willing to challenge the status quo. And his maverick style, along with his renter status and his penchant for public transportation and, yes, his Green Party affiliation makes it it easier for those who have grown skeptical about politics to believe that he might actually remain true to his principles if elected.

The San Francisco mayoral contest ought to be seen in perspective. Gavin Newsom is not the devil in disguise. He is not a Republican dressed up as a Democrat. In fact, he is a relatively typical Democrat. Unfortunately for the Democrats, their typical standard bearers have had a hard time expanding the party’s base of support in recent years. That’s why, even as he has attained frontrunner status in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean has continued to eschew the centrist message and style favored by Clinton, Gore and so many prominent Democrats. Dean may be an imperfect progressive messenger, but his blunt and aggressive style has helped him reach out to a base of young and disenfranchised voters that Democrats are going to need in 2004.

The same can be said of Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a proud Green, and if he is elected he will surely emerge as a national leader for that party. But, if Democrats are smart, they will drop the petty partisanship and ask themselves why Gonzalez has done so well. Only if they take that question — and its answer — seriously will Democrats be able to significantly improve their party’s fortunes.