CHICAGO -- The election to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago is Tuesday and Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, is so far ahead that the only question is, will he win outright with more than 50 percent of the vote or be forced into a run-off on April 5 against whoever places what may be a distant second.
"Can I count on ya?...Hey buddy," Emanuel, 51, said in his clipped tone as he approached shoppers at a Target store on Cottage Grove near 85th
, on the city's South Side on Saturday, as he focused over the weekend on turning out the African-American vote.
At the Target -- where most shoppers were African-American -- people stopped him near the entrance to hoist cell phones for pictures. Emanuel frets, "I'm not getting very far, not even to the fruits and vegetables." As he darts around the store in blue jeans, a V-neck sweater over a button-down shirt and running shoes, every shopper seems pleasantly surprised to see him.
Many offered they had already voted for him (early voting is catching on) and a reporter tagging along heard no questions about his main rivals: former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992 as the first African-American woman elected to the Senate, later tapped by President Bill Clinton to be ambassador to New Zealand after she lost re-election; City Clerk Miguel del Valle; and attorney Gery Chico, a former chief of staff for Mayor Daley. Recent polls have shown Emanuel to be 30 percentage points ahead of his closest opponent, Chico.
Over at the Aveeno products shelves, a teacher told Emanuel it's the fifth time she has spotted him during the campaign -- with other sightings at an "EL" stop -- that's what the elevated trains are called here -- and a previous visit to the Target.
A few aisles over, another shopper, Sherri Rembert, a South Sider who is the director of community-based programs at an alternative high school, told me she will vote for Emanuel.
"I know that Carol is supposed to represent the African-American community; my husband and I have worked with Doc Walls in his previous campaign," she said, referring to a marginal mayoral candidate, William "Doc" Walls.
"But for what Chicago needs, my husband and myself genuinely feel that we need someone who is not as entrenched in Chicago politics," Rembert told me. "We need someone who has a world-class background and can attract the kind of money and business we need in this city."
Actually Emanuel is involved in Chicago politics.
While he spent the past two years dealing with Congress and complex domestic and international affairs as President Obama's chief of staff, it's instructive to look at Emanuel's political roots.
Early in his career, he was a fundraiser for Mayor Daley, who is retiring after running City Hall since 1989. Emanuel won election to the House in 2002 with the help of Daley's political foot soldiers. For years Emanuel has been close to the mayor's brother, William Daley, who replaced him as White House chief of staff. And Emanuel has a deep friendship with David Axelrod, who just stepped down as a White House senior adviser and was a key strategist for Mayor Daley before taking on Obama. Axelrod's former political consulting firm is making Emanuel's commercials
When it comes to attracting money -- for his mayoral campaign -- Emanuel is the light bulb and a big group of very rich people -- many non-Chicagoans -- are the flies.
There are many reasons why Emanuel is so far ahead of his rivals, though obviously his campaign bundle is a critical part of the equation. Emanuel is using the money to run a very professional campaign; his rivals have not found an issue against him that has significant traction and his outpouring of policy ideas helped win him endorsements from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. An Emanuel favorite line about the tough economic choices facing Chicago: "Denial is not a long-term strategy."
He has modulated his abrasive and rude behavior so that voters don't see his brusque side and is disciplined enough to curb his habitual use of the "F" word in public.
A turning point in the mayoral campaign was the challenge to his residency -- the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that he could run even though he moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as Obama's chief of staff -- which made Emanuel a sympathetic character.
Add to that the open endorsement of former President Clinton -- he was in Chicago on Jan. 18 for Emanuel -- and a sort of de facto non-endorsement endorsement from President Obama, the nation's first African-American president.
Obama gave Emanuel a lavish good-bye ceremony from the White House East Room on Oct. 1; Obama has allowed audio and video from the carefully staged sendoff -- where he praised Emanuel -- to be used in radio and TV spots and on direct-mail pieces. The back of one direct-mail piece features pictures of Emanuel with Clinton and Obama. (Emanuel said recently he and Obama talk regularly)
Emanuel has also been blessed with weak rivals. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who could have given Emanuel a fight, decided not to run. Del Valle, who is considered the most progressive contender, has no money and not much of a campaign.
Braun was hobbled because leaders of Chicago's African-American community took weeks to settle on Braun as the consensus black candidate. She has not been effective in making one of her big arguments: that Emanuel, as Obama's chief of staff and as a House leader, blocked the agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus.
She also shot herself in the foot a few times. Last month, Braun called another marginal candidate, Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, "strung out on crack" though the rival had been drug free for some 25 years.
Chico has a good campaign team, a lot of union backing, and support from a powerful alderman. Besides serving as Daley's chief of staff, Chico was president of Chicago Public Schools, president of the Chicago Park District and chairman of Chicago City Colleges.
But Chico's fundraising effort lagged far behind Emanuel's.
Emanuel quickly raised a huge political warchest after leaving the White House.
He started the campaign with a running start, transfering $1.1 million from his federal House fund to his city race. Between Oct. 1, when Emanuel quit as chief of staff, through Dec. 31, Emanuel raised an additional $10.5 million to Chico's $2.5 million, Braun's $445,760 and del Valle's $111,499. Each has raised more money since then, but nothing close to closing the gap with Emanuel.
A prolific fundraiser -- skills honed while working for President Clinton's 1992 campaign, Clinton's inaugural and as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- Emanuel pulled in mega-donations -- $25,000, $50,000, $100,000, even one for $200,000 -- before Illinois law changed on Jan. 1. The new state law would ban the six-figure donations Emanuel accepted.
Emanuel is selective about the information he will release about his fundraising events and his schedule. Many campaign stops are revealed only after they occur.
At the last mayoral debate -- on Valentine's Day -- at the Oriental Theatre in the Loop, Braun bemoaned Emanuel's ability to use his millions of dollars to manage his message.
There is reality "in terms of record and there is a reality created by spending lots of money," she told reporters, saying that Emanuel was, "spending a lot of money on image creation, that's the issue it seems to me. I don't know that we actually got to that really in the debate tonight, I don't know if it is possible to get to that. When you have so much money involved in politics, it is very easy to have images created."
At Target, I asked Emanuel what his big vision was for Chicago. Former Mayor Jane Byrne tried to land a World's Fair for the city and President Obama and his wife, Michelle, flew to Copenhagen in 2009 to help Daley try to land the 2016 Olympics, only to see the city's bid rejected in the first round of Olympic Committee voting.
Emanuel told me: "Both of those failed. And I think it is a mistake to tie an economic strategy to one-trick ponies." Chicago, he said, is the only inland U.S. city "with an international business model" and "we have to continue to invest in that very successful model."
If elected, Emanuel said, "I would not tie my economic growth to one single objective that you don't control. Neither one did we ever get, and we did not control the fate of getting them."
On Sunday, Emanuel was cautious about whether he can win Tuesday with more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid the April 5 runoff.
"It may take one or two bites of the apple," he said.