CHICAGO -- White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is taking a little time to decide whether to run for mayor of Chicago to replace Mayor Richard Daley, who stunned the political establishment here with his surprise announcement Tuesday that he would not seek a seventh term.
In Washington, White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod, Emanuel's close friend, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to buy Emanuel some breathing room on Wednesday, offering up comments about how he has a lot on his chief of staff plate.
"So I think Rahm right now is focused on the enormous number of tasks that we have in front of us as an administration. I have no doubt that he'll take some time to think about what he wants to do with his future, but I think his focus right now is on his job as chief of staff," Gibbs said at the daily briefing.
On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," host Joe Scarborough asked Axelrod whether Emanuel would run. Axelrod replied, "Now, he also has a great job...but he's got some options, and he's got some decisions to make, and he will think it over."
As for whether President Obama will request Emanuel to stay, Axelrod said on NBC's "Today Show, " "no one is indispensable. And if that's the direction he decides to go, there are many here who are ready to fill in the breach. But he hasn't made that decision. He and I both worked with Mayor Daley. We were stunned by the news, knowing how much the mayor loved that job. So he's digesting that news, and he'll make a decision in due time."
Andrea Stone's related story, Who Should Replace Rahm Emanuel at the White House?
Emanuel will also be out of commission for a few days observing the Rosh Hashanah holiday. But every day Emanuel stays in Washington is one more day for the swelling list of potential contenders to grow back in Chicago -- and for Emanuel to leave his flanks exposed. At least 20 would-be contenders are jockeying for position, and more are likely to join what will be a free-for-all.
While Emanuel would be in the top tier of contestants, he by no means starts off at the front of the line. Chicago's progressive community -- the "professional left"-- started organizing against Emanuel when news of his interest in replacing Daley surfaced earlier in the year. They fault Emanuel for not pushing for a public option in health care. The big unions -- and Chicago is a union city -- are cool to an Emanuel bid, disappointed that the Obama White House never made immigration a priority or pushed harder for a law to make it easier to organize in the workplace. Emanuel has no solid political base compared to other potential rivals.
I see it as Emanuel likely to run, with the question being when he would step down as chief of staff. Nominating petitions, with 12,500 valid signatures needed for the February, 2011 nonpartisan primary ballot, are due on Nov. 22.
Emanuel is a former House member and a prodigious fundraiser; he has a little over $1 million in his political war chest and that gives him a running start in quickly building a political operation.
But Emanuel would bring to a mayoral contest baggage that didn't matter in the White House -- or in his flourishing former House career-- but would be a factor in a City Hall bid. A federal investigation into illegal City Hall hiring a few years ago revealed that city workers -- part of the Hispanic Democratic Organization -- campaigned for Emanuel and others. Emanuel's record as a former member of the Chicago Housing Authority would be scrutinized. An Obama endorsement would not guarantee Emanuel the fifth floor office of City Hall.
Emanuel had been scheduled to be in Chicago on Sunday and Monday to headline fundraisers for Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.), Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) and Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), but backed out a few hours after people received e-mail invitations. Emanuel spokesman Meridith Webster told me in an e-mail: "Unfortunately due to a scheduling conflict we had to change the date. I expect this will be rescheduled soon."
No doubt the aggressive Chicago press corps -- unimpressed with Emanuel's White House big shot image -- would have been all over Emanuel at the fundraisers to find out what he wants to do.
Veteran Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman told me, "With everybody and his brother lining up to run and attempting to build coalitions, Emanuel can't afford to wait until after the midterm elections. And if Democrats take a beating, he will wear part of the jacket for that.
"The fact that he can raise money in an instant won't be good enough for this election. He has so much work to do. His image in Washington does not translate to a strong mayoral contender in Chicago...and he has few friends in Chicago politics because of his personality. So he has a lot of work to do and the sooner the better to start. And not the least is he carries baggage from his current job. The seas may part for him in Washington, they don't in Chicago."
Daley, in a City Hall press conference on Wednesday, said he would not endorse a successor.
"You know who's gonna decide that? They're not gonna be anointed. It's gonna be the people of the city of Chicago who'll make that decision. It won't be Rich Daley to make that decision," the mayor said.
"I'm not gonna make any recommendation. The people of Chicago will make the recommendation. They will thoroughly look at everyone. They will look at your campaign, what your priorities are, what you want to accomplish and how you want to bring people together."
I asked Alderman Ray Surez about Emanuel's prospects. "Emanuel is a guy who has vast experience in the White House and in Congress. He's qualified. I'm not saying he is not. We'll see what happens."