By Stump Connolly

The last days before the February 22 mayoral primary are shaping up to be something of a letdown. Three polls released last week have frontrunner Rahm Emanuel winning 54 percent, 49 percent and 58 percent (if “undecided” is not an option) of Tuesday’s vote, and last night’s ABC-League of Women Voters debate at the Oriental Theater did little to change the dynamics. Maybe it’s time to invoke the slaughter rule.

Euphoria over Rahm’s smooth sailing in this election has drifted back to his friends in the White House. Asked at a press conference whether he’ll be making calls on Emanuel’s behalf, President Obama could only chuckle. “He seems to be doing just fine on his own,” he said. “He’s been very busy shoveling snow out there. And I’ve been impressed with that. I never saw him shoveling snow around here.”

For the last two days, the frontrunner has been on a “50 wards in 50 hours” mad dash around the city. He’s wolfed down tacos at Tio Luis Tacos in the 12th ward, shook hands at Coleman’s barbershop in the 5th, visited senior centers in the 17th and 31th, after school programs in the 9th, 21st and 44th, and coffee shops, grocery stores and bakeries in wards too numerous to mention. (Want to relive the journey? See the interactive map, video and photos he posted along the way on his campaign website.)

This is only the latest manifestation of a campaign organization so dominant in this race that Tuesday’s election isn’t just Rahm versus everyone else, it’s a contest between Rahm and his own expectations, which are considerable. And if for some reason he fails to get the 50 percent plus one majority he needs –– and I can think of a couple scenarios where that could still happen – every day he must wait to grab the prize in an April 5 run-off will be pure agony.

The Agony and The Ecstasy

And make no mistake, campaigning out on the streets is agony for Emanuel. Yes, there has been the occasional  joyful discovery on the campaign trail of people who actually want to shake his hand at the El stops. More people than you might imagine are happy to have him come into their stores and businesses, to share their ideas with him and volunteer their help. But gratifying as that is, you can always detect in Emanuel’s face a concern under the surface about what might happen if he ever let his guard down with them.

When he first walks into a campaign appearance, he often seems stiff or aloof. Sometimes he will huddle with aides before going in, preoccupied with some campaign detail that has just been brought to his attention. Invariably, he mellows as he gets more comfortable with people around him. But he’ll never be the glad-hander Clinton was–even if he does finally seem to be enjoying himself, or making a good show of it.

For most of his political life, Emanuel has been a behind the scenes player. He is renowned as one of the great fundraisers in politics. And not because people love him — he’s great at putting the bite on people . . . then biting again until they’ve given the max. He’s also proven to be a superb head-knocker and vote-counter in the knives and elbows wrangling between Congress and Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Although Emanuel has run for public office before (he served four terms in the House of Representatives from the northwest side’s 5th congressional district, winning in 2008 with 75 percent of the vote) the biggest excitement of those years came when he was appointed to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In that capacity, he raised record sums for Congressional races and recruited dozens of Democratic candidates for close contests, helping Democrats regain control of the House in 2006.

In those races, Emanuel shared the task of political strategist with his old friend David Axelrod (whose previous firm AKP is handling Emanuel’s Chicago campaign). He wasn’t just a fundraiser, he was the candidates’ cheerleader, friend, mentor and disciplinarian. It was an exhilarating time, and he enjoyed every minute. (Naftali Bendavid wrote a book about it called “The Thumpin’”.) Axelrod would produce the TV commercials and Emanuel would juggle the money deciding where to air them. To make that determination, he dove into the details of every race, the daily tracking polls and how candidates were handling debates or breaking news – and he worried about everything.

The Candidate of His Own Dreams

In the Chicago mayoral race, Emanuel has proven to be the candidate of his own dreams. He is the man in front of the curtain this time taking his own advice – even if that means keeping up a steely smile when your natural instincts call for a string of profanity-laced expletives.

Behind the scenes –even before he left the White House –he had put together a team of experienced professionals to handle polling, press, media, Internet and field operations that would be the envy of any political operation. And there was never any question the money would be there. In the three months before a new state law limited political contributions after January 1, Emanuel raised an eye-popping $10 million. The money poured in from all over the country, nearly half of it in chunks of $50,000 or more.

In that quiet way people let people know they “can work with” a politician, the Chicago business establishment also lined up behind Emanuel (much to the chagrin of Gery Chico who worked with them for decades) and his long personal relationship with both Obama and Clinton quickly turned into slick and effective commercials on his behalf .

Listening Tours and El Stops

Emanuel’s first steps on returning to Chicago came right out of the Campaign 101 guidebook: “A listening tour” around Chicago that was little more than a thinly-veiled opportunity to shoot B-roll for political commercials and daily visits to shake hands with voters at El stops (every TV station’s favorite way to cover a talking head).

The El stop visits in the early morning hours became a symbol of his campaign – and Emanuel’s prodigious energy. (By Election Day, he will have visited over 200 of them.) Although his interactions with voters there are fleeting, he has used these appearances as an excuse for not attending neighborhood forums with the other candidates. “I’m out with the people every day,” he told reporters. “They have their strategy for talking to voters, I have mine.”

Running Against a Celebrity

The mayor’s race took off in earnest on January 3 when Carol Moseley Braun finally emerged as the “consensus” candidate of the African-American community. By then, Emanuel had already spent $2 million on TV commercials. The long drawn out election board hearings over his residency had given him a chance to build a Facebook page with over 40,000 friends – many recruited through Internet ads asking whether he should be allowed on the ballot – and his field operation claimed to have already contacted 150,000 people and held 30,000 face-to-face conversations.

The other candidates had seven weeks to catch up. Chico was the most prepared. He had studied the race, hired the services of well-respected political consultant Ken Snyder (who did Toni Preckwinkle’s campaign) and banked $2.5 million himself for a coming TV blitz. But Braun stumbled coming out of the gate, and kept stumbling through the rest of the race. Whether it was her slow release of tax returns, floundering tea company or sharp-tongue rebuke of a rival as a crack head, she never capitalized on the unity and, in short order, her poll numbers nose-dived (with Emanuel picking up most of the defectors).

The progressive reformer was City Clerk Miguel del Valle. True to his principles, del Valle refused to accept contributions from city contractors (not that they were standing around waiting to hand over bags of money), and although he became over the coming weeks a forceful proponent of the neighborhoods, no money meant no TV airtime, and paid TV commercials were the only way to gain voter mind share.

The New Media Environment

The fundamental problem for all three was that Rahm’s candidacy sucked the air out an already deflated Chicago media. He was Rahm, a political superstar, and they were Braun, Chico and del Valle. A Chicago Reporter study of news stories in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times found that from November through January 31, Emanuel was mentioned 447 times; Chico, 227; Braun, 210; del Valle, 146; Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, 36: and “Doc” Walls, 41.

Some of this is attributable to Emanuel’s national celebrity, some to the twists and turns of a residency controversy that made him indeed more newsworthy. Mostly, however, it’s a reflection of the sad fact that declining sales and staff cutbacks that have left too few reporters on the papers writing about too many candidates in too little space. The balance of power has tipped back from the press to the campaigns, whose money and mechanics allow them to control the media agenda.

When candidate schedules are emailed to reporters every day, they rarely include more than one event. Usually it is a photo op or endorsement session, a chance for a few quick questions and a sound bite for TV’s 6 o’clock news. The Sun-Times covered these events with only two reporters, one being Fran Spellman splitting her time with regular duties as the veteran City Hall reporter. The Tribune used three. And even when they found a good story, it was inevitably chopped down into a smaller news hole.

The best campaign reporting would spring up in the blogs of the newspaper columnists, or from small online publications like CapitolFax and The Reader, or serendipitously on the Internet, as happened with the sudden webcast of the Tribune Editorial Board session that appeared on the WGN site.

If you wanted to follow the campaign in all its detail, you had to get on board the Twitter bandwagon. Candidates, political reporters, pundits and gadflys quickly became comfortable posting up their 140-word comments with references to other stories and hashmarks for inclusion in the #ChicagoMayor tag stream. (And everyone seemed to love the irreverent musings of @MayorEmanuel.) But it’s still not clear who benefited from any of this, certainly not the voters who will be trudging to the polls Tuesday to cast the only votes that count.

Debates Are Over-Rated

More and more, the campaigns look to the TV stations as a staging ground for the mayoral debates, but their value has been subverted by TV station managers who don’t seem to trust their own reporters. What compels TV news directors to think debates are more interesting when the questions come from viewers at home? And why they solicit them through Twitter and Facebook is beyond me.

There have been six televised debates in this race. The first at WTTW turned over the questioning of the candidates to students from the Mikva Challenge, which was nice for the students but not particularly enlightening for the viewers. The third sponsored by Fox 32 and the Urban League brought together such a mish-mash of self-promoting questions, Internet gimmickry, video interludes and audience participation, even the candidates were confused.

The best of the debates was WTTW’s second shot at it where Carol Marin––going one-on-four with all of the candidates––asked the questions a reporter would ask and gave the candidates a chance to bat around the answer. Thank you, Carol, for reminding us all why they call journalism a profession.

The Last Debate

The last debate sponsored by ABC and the League of Women Voters and ABC Thursday night at the Oriental Theater fell into the middling range – not the best, not the worst, just the last.

ABC anchor Ron Magers moderated a panel consisting of political reporter Charles Thomas and Univision anchor Paula Gomez. Their questions covered most of the campaign issues, some massive (like how to fix the public schools) and some petty (“are you a pathological evader of the truth?”). The basic format was a minute for each candidate to answer and 45 seconds for any who wanted a follow-up rebuttal. Braun, Chico and del Valle took advantage of a few questions to pile on Emanuel, especially over a few personal vulnerabilities like his Fannie Mae board salary and $18 million earnings as an investment banker.

But if Emanuel didn’t look great answering every question, he didn’t look bad: and as I watched the debate play out, I knew that he knew the clock is ticking down on this campaign, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

The Crossroads

The message of the Emanuel campaign in the end is not all that different from the others: Chicago is at a crossroads, huge deficits loom ahead, people are concerned about their jobs, schools and safety on the streets, and Chicago should choose a leader who is not afraid to make the hard choices to lead us out of this mess.

Other candidates offer variations on how they would lead. Gery Chico promises hard-nosed decision-making from an experienced person who has been through it before. Miguel del Valle presents himself as someone whose fundamental goodness can change the whole climate at City Hall. And Moseley Braun is running a campaign that implies the people will tell her how to lead.

A Numbers Game

As we move into the home stretch, what matters now isn’t whom you favor but whether you turn out to vote for them. Emanuel needs 50 percent plus one to end the game. But is that 50 percent of the 550,000 people who voted in the 2007 mayoral election or 50 percent of the 1.1 million who turned out when Harold Washington won the office in 1983?

The Emanuel campaign says that it has 6,000 volunteers to help get out the vote Tuesday. Del Valle says his army of supporters has 2,000 volunteers. (Chico and Braun declined to give an estimate.) How many voters can any of them effectively turn out in the next four days? This is where the strength of the field operation matters.

From here on it, this is a numbers game. And the truth is, these are the kind of numbers Rahm knows better than anything else you have to know to be the next mayor of Chicago.

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