TO HIS admirers, he is a Chinese Bill Clinton, with a liberal vision of the new United States. To his enemies, he is a hypocritical rich-kid politician funded by outsiders with dubious motives. Whatever people say about him, Mr Michael Woo believes he is ready, willing and able to take on one of the toughest jobs in the US, burying the myth that Asian-Americans and politics don't mix. He is the man to beat in the April 20 elections deciding the next civic leader of Los Angeles - a city beset by problems of race, recession and inner-city rage, a city waiting nervously for the second Rodney King verdict. It is a mayoralty race with all the trademarks of street-fighting, cut-throat US politics. Mr Woo's rivals have accused him of hypocrisy, lack of integrity and illegal fund-raising. The fact he has raised the biggest war chest - much of it believed to have come from people with Hongkong connections - has made him an easy target. ''I fully expect that other candidates will spend as much money as they can to attack me and try to diminish my record as a leader for the last 10 years,'' said Mr Woo, who went to school in Hongkong, his parents having met and married in the territory. ''But as long as I am able to get my message out there, as long as I'm able to talk about solutions I'm proposing, I'm not concerned about the attacks by jealous rivals. ''I think that some of the other candidates might try to rehash old stories, but I think as long as I can stay on track about the central issues of the economy, crime and race relations, I will do well.'' Supporter Mr Richard Close said: ''People try to get rid of the front-running candidate by attacking his character. That happened when Clinton ran for president. That's what some people are trying to do with Woo.'' His bid to take over from outgoing mayor Mr Tom Bradley is being funded by an unlikely alliance of Asian-Americans, Hispanics, prominent blacks, Hollywood bigwigs and anonymous supporters in Hongkong. Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox have contributed to his war chest, as have Walt Disney Studios chairman Mr Jeffrey Katzenberg, MCA president Mr Sidney Sheinberg and Paramount president Ms Sherry Lansing, who is also the wifeof Oscar-winning film director William Friedkin, the maker of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Mr Woo, 41, is one of four mayoral candidates who have raised more than US$4 million (HK$31 million) in contributions to their campaigns. There are allegations that months before he could legally raise and spend money on his mayoral campaign, Mr Woo spent thousands of dollars in contributions to set up a campaign computer system and key elements of his staff. It is also claimed records show Mr Woo used non-campaign contributions to fly to cities as early as January last year to meet Asian-Americans who would later contribute thousands of dollars to his campaign. Part of the funds from these Asian-American communities originated in Hongkong, Singapore and Indonesia. Financial support has come from the Cathay Bank, which has Hongkong ties, Garuda Indonesian Airways and the United Overseas Bank of Singapore. Many of Mr Woo's Chinese-American supporters live in Hongkong for part of each year or have businesses in the territory. Councilman and rival candidate Mr Joel Wachs said: ''He flagrantly violated the law. He had all of his fund-raisers on payroll and set up fund-raising connections that were clearly converted later into money for his campaign.'' But Mr Woo has weathered the storm of controversy and he is leading the diverse pack of 24 candidates. In many ways, Mr Woo is typical of the new breed of politicians in the US. He is young, smartly dressed and good-looking. Conservative with a small ''c'' and unassuming by nature, Mr Woo is indisputably a liberal by the standards of actor Charlton Heston, who became his latest fan and supporter last week. The Los Angeles councilman has gone from an owlish-looking political novice to major power player thanks to a combination of hard work and support for middle-of-the-road policies spiced up with a liberal conscience for the underdog. He has made a political reputation as a staunch supporter of the city's downtrodden but not without reservations. He gives generously to street people out of his own pocket but then worries about how they will spend the cash. He champions the cause of poor immigrants, then frets about his public image. ''I find myself a prisoner of two different kinds of perceptions, one that my leadership might result in the instant transformation of Los Angeles into a Third World city, and the other that I'm too much of a yuppie who encourages sidewalk cafes and jazzmusic to be played over city radio stations,'' he said, while sipping sparkling cider in his home in the respectable middle-class Silver Lake suburb. The grandson of prosperous Chinese immigrants, he started his political career at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1969 when he wrote a column for his college newspaper under the byline Citizen Woo. In those days he had shoulder-length hair, played folk guitar and identified with the new American proletariat - the young men from the big inner-city ghettos and barrios drafted to fight a war he opposed. But even then there was nothing confrontational or outlandish about the young Woo. He cut his hair when he went home on vacations and carefully avoided arguments with his conservative father, a man once invited to visit then president Mr Richard Nixon at the White House. Always a man who prefers thoughtful compromise, Mr Woo ambitiously tried to negotiate how he would serve his country during the Vietnam War. He asked his draft board to classify him as a conscientious objector but told them he would serve in Vietnam provided he did not have to carry a gun. Now his ambition is to win over a city where many of the people he would champion do not vote, and many of those who do share his father's political views rather than his own. In addition, the youthful-looking candidate, with the appearance of a bookworm, has to convince voters he is leader enough to do a job many far more experienced politicians have shied from. Even though he has only served two-terms as a councilman and his career has been confined to government work, the polls indicate he is on course to become mayor. Guided by his mother's admonition, ''don't do anything that would embarrass your family'', Mr Woo continually seeks to reconcile the pressures exerted by the two powerful cultures that have molded him. A friend said: ''You can see him working out the tension in his newly-renovated house, hiring a fashionable architect to give it a geometrical verve, then acquiescing to a Chinese tradition that straight hallways invite evil spirits.'' And you can see it in his campaign. He actively courts the Asian-American entrepreneurs, African-American religious ministers and politicians, Mexican street traders, AIDS activists, environmentalists, youthful celebrities and assorted trendy Westside liberals who stand for the new Los Angeles. At the same time, he works hard at not alienating the old Los Angeles. He pledges to put down any recurrence of last year's rioting after the acquittal of the police officers who were videotaped beating black motorist Mr Rodney King. He also has an ambitious plan to make the city more ''business friendly'' by reforming City Hall bureaucracy. He trained to become a city planner and delights in talking about the Los Angeles he would like to see unfold under his stewardship. Mr Woo's Los Angeles would be a place where people of all cultures and classes rub shoulders, and where the ethnic isolation imposed by car travel and increasingly-popular gated neighbourhoods, guarded by private security firms, becomes a thing of the past. ''We have not had wide sidewalks where people of different walks of life share experiences,'' he said. ''We haven't had a subway where the executive with the attache case shares a space with the kid with a ghetto blaster. It has been much easier in Los Angeles than in other cities for people of one economic strata to stay with people like themselves all day and never experience the diversity of the city.'' He is aware his dream could scare away people who value Los Angeles for its elbow room and for the tranquility of its suburban neighbourhoods. ''It's a perception I have to deal with . . . that my candidacy symbolises a turn away from Los Angeles as a transplanted Midwestern city on the Pacific Coast.'' But that is precisely what Mr Woo's candidacy symbolises - a break from the city's past. ''My goal is to enable Los Angeles to live up to the best purposes of urban life, to take advantage of our diversity, take advantage of our size, of the kinds of resources that are only available in a city and not in a suburb or a farming community.'' Mr Woo portrays himself as a consensus builder. His campaign boasts he, more than any other candidate, can make Los Angeles work as one again. ''I want to be the mayor who unites the city. I want to close the gap between haves and have-nots. I want to tear down the invisible walls that divide the Eastside from the Westside, the San Fernando Valley from South-Central Los Angeles.'' But there is a fine line between consensus-building and currying favour, and Mr Woo has been accused of crossing the line more than once. His opponents say he tries to be all things to all men and, worse, that he is not true to his word. Through much of his eight years on the city council, he has been dogged by criticism that he is a career politician with his finger shamelessly in the wind. Moreover, the critics say, he has not always found it convenient to live by the values enshrined in the environmental and ethnic laws that are the hallmarks of his legislative record. They also point to a mixed record of accomplishment in Hollywood, the district he represents. Despite improvements in social services, his grand plans for revitalising Hollywood have yet to materialise and the area remains rundown and crime-ridden. Mr Woo was elected to his Hollywood area city council seat in 1985 as a champion of the environment and a proponent of the show-growth movement. But his aggressive efforts on behalf of major developers in Hollywood and his on-again, off-again support forenvironmental protection of the Mulholland scenic corridor - a major hilltop road dividing Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley - left some people confused about where he stood. Campaigning hard for the support of environmentalists, he has prepared a lengthy position paper spelling out plans for expanding parklands, opposing landfill sites, diverting polluted run-off from the Santa Monica Bay and curbing industrial air pollutionin poor neighbourhoods. He takes credit for an ordinance that curtails hillside construction. But his position paper makes no mention of the controversy that erupted when he took out plans to enlarge his hillside house four months before the new laws he drafted came into effect. The expansion, which more than doubled the size of his home, was estimated to cost considerably more than US$100,000 and was designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Israel, a rising star in his field. Israel even dubbed the redesigned home ''the Woo Pavilion'' and featured it in a book of his best works. Mr Woo's critics complained he had thumbed his nose at the spirit of his laws and accused him of being a glaring example of a ''limousine liberal'' advocating lofty reforms while exempting himself from their application and enforcement. A similar criticism was levelled against him after revelations he had accepted allegedly illegal contributions in cash and from foreign corporations. The sum in question was only US$8,700, but the matter would have made far less of a stir had Mr Woo not been the author of the ethics law that governs campaign funding practises. His foes accused him of playing fast and loose with ethics rules by using a special fund to get an early start on his campaign before it was legally permissible. Mr Woo downplayed both matters. He denied any misuse of funds and said the questionable donations were the result of inadvertent ''technical errors'' by members of his staff. He returned the disputed money. As for the criticisms about his home, Mr Woo dismissed then as being the result of ''a ravenous public appetite for cynicism about public officials''. But he refused to say how he made for such a high-profile reconstruction or whether his wealthy parents have given him financial help. His refusal to answer these questions came during the same week his campaign staff urged reporters to press another mayoral candidate to tell where he obtained the money for his collection of paintings by celebrated contemporary American artists. Mr Woo's financial relationship with his parents has been fodder for his opponents since the 1985 city council election when his father, Mr Wilbur Woo, a successful produce merchant and Chinatown banker, contributed almost 25 per cent of the US$800,000 raised during his son's campaign. ''Mike is a liberal, a voice for the downtrodden, a child of the '80s at odds with his father's politics, while at the same time he is dependent on dad for the very money that has propelled his political career,'' said a one-time supporter who had a falling out over neighbourhood politics. Mr Woo makes light of criticism of being a ''poor little rich kid''. But he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He is the only son of an only son of a Chinese immigrant. He is a man whose very gender was cause for celebration in a marriage producing four girls. The best piece of chicken was reserved for him and, in accordance with family tradition, his sisters served it. His sister Elaine, who works as an editor at the Los Angeles Times, said: ''He was definitely the No. 1 son.'' In a white American family this pampered upbringing might have produced a self-indulgent, middle-aged brat, incapable of making his own way in the world. But Mr Woo said that from the beginning he was aware the good life came with the expectation that hemust amount to something. ''I think it helped me build my self-confidence, and my self-confidence is one of my assets. I grew up with the expectation that I would have major responsibilities.'' Just as two cultures have moulded Michael Woo the person, his friends trust that potential voters will see the two sides of Michael Woo the candidate. He has adopted a public persona of being as slick and rehearsed as a contestant on a TV game show. But friends would prefer voters to become acquainted with a man who loves jazz, books, films and staying up late, and who did not own a television until 1986, when he married. His new wife owned a TV. Mr Woo confesses to the duality in his character causing a constant internal tug. One side of him would like to be ensconced in a university library with a book by Louis Mumford, an eminent authority on cities. The other wants to get out and change the world. But there is far more to the private Michael Woo than books. He loves good food and hates leftovers. He is a clotheshorse who shops at Saks Fifth Avenue - an upmarket department store - but only during their twice a year sales. He would rather walk two blocks than pay someone US$2 to park his car. For a rich kid, he admits: ''I certainly have cheap tendencies.'' A blind date introduced him to his wife, Susan Fong, a Berkeley graduate whose interest in the labour movement led her to spend six years working at a Los Angeles steel factory operating a lathe. Ms Fong, who now reviews grants and endowments for a charity foundation, is fluent in Cantonese. Mr Woo spoke Cantonese until be was five and now remembers ''barely enough to order in a Chinese restaurant''. But running for office in a city fraught with ethnic sensitivities seems to bring him back to his roots. When he talks about his family he is less likely to dwell on the philosophical differences between generations than he is to speak proudly about the work his father and grandfather did for Chinese immigrants, helping them find homes and jobs. His council record reflects similar concerns for struggling immigrants. He tried unsuccessfully to have Los Angeles designated a ''city of sanctuary'' for Latin American refugees fleeing political persecution. He was an outspoken supporter of an ordinance that prevented Los Angeles city police from aiding in the detention of illegal immigrants. He fought for a law, still awaiting final approval, allowing immigrant street tradesmen to ply their trade. Mr Woo, a man who even friends admit does not like to say ''no'' to people, has drawn criticism for the bouquets of promises his campaign has tossed to various groups. He has pledged to appoint a gay or lesbian to the city Police Commission. He has told Latino activists he will set up an office of immigrant affairs. He has promised South-Central Los Angeles a multi-million-dollar package of economic incentives at a time when the city is facing a possible US$550 million deficit. ''Does Mike Woo understand that building a governing coalition has as much to do with saying no to people as it does to saying yes?'' said one economist. ''You do it by making people respect you, and you don't get respect by passing out posies everywhere you go, especially these days when the city hasn't got much left to give away.'' Mr Woo bristles at charges he is trying to be everything to everybody. ''Because I have a vision of what a city is all about, because I welcome diversity, because I welcome competition, because I value the creativity that can only take place in a city like Los Angeles, that's why I think I'm the right person to be mayor.''