With the term limited mayoral run of Antonio Villaraigosa coming to an end next year, a number of possible candidates are lining up to test the waters in a quest to become Los Angeles’ next mayor. Two potential major candidates are successful businessmen: developer Rick Caruso and investment banker Austin Beutner.

I had an opportunity to see both men in action last week. Beutner attended a small gathering of the Valley Vote Board of Directors while Caruso was also in the San Fernando Valley speaking to a couple of hundred members of the United Chambers of Commerce.

Both Caruso and Beutner have spent some time in government. Caruso served on Los Angeles commissions including the city’s police commission. Beutner worked as Mayor Villaraigosa’s deputy mayor for economic and business policy, but also worked for the U.S. State Department in Russia helping the former Soviet Union transition to a market economy.

A number of analysts looking at the coming mayor’s race feel the environment is similar to the time Republican attorney and businessman Richard Riordan captured the mayor’s office in 1993. The opportunity may be there for a business executive to take control of the city government once again.

Beutner and Caruso have similar outlooks when they talk about correcting the ills of Los Angeles. Both emphasize treating the city’s citizens like “customers.” Both attack the gross receipts tax system as detrimental to business. Caruso boldly says that tax kills jobs and should eventually be eliminated. Beutner also says the gross receipts tax must be changed and points to efforts he made as deputy mayor, such as a tax holiday for new businesses, to encourage new businesses coming to LA.

Los Angeles is losing the battle over jobs. As Caruso stated in his speech, since 1980 while the city’s population gained one million people and cities surrounding LA gained 500,000 jobs, Los Angeles lost 50,000 jobs.

Beutner and Caruso both displayed ideas on dealing with two of Los Angeles most serious problems: education and transportation. Caruso resisted the idea of more LA subways arguing trains should be run down the center of freeways.

Both business execs could self fund their campaigns but neither plans to do so. Beutner is fundraising; Caruso says he would raise funds as well if he runs.

Both potential candidates would be fighting for the same base and they make similar arguments on the issues of the day. So what might separate them in the public eye?

Caruso has the better name ID at this point. He will be labeled a developer. Not the best title in this town, but his projects such as the Grove shopping and entertainment center are very popular. (He noted the Grove had 20 million visitors a year compared to Disneyland’s 13 million, although I suspect that the admission price might have something to do with the disparity in those numbers.)

Beutner will have to deal with how he defines his role with the current mayor and how popular Villaraigosa is come election time.

The situation in which I watched them last week was quite different and a side-by-side comparison is difficult. Beutner appeared serious and reserved. Caruso, addressing a large audience, was relaxed. Beutner was challenged with more specific questions than Caruso, who was asked how he could save the Dodgers. Both handled the Q&A well.

If policy is similar, personality and the way they conduct their campaigns will make the difference.