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Chicago mayor's race: Will it end up Rahm Emanuel vs. Carol Moseley Braun?

The African-American community in Chicago has tried for some time to coalesce around a single candidate for mayor. Now, after Rep. Danny Davis dropped out, Carol Moseley Braun is the main black candidate.

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Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel speaks at a press conference in Chicago on Dec. 23.

M. Spencer Green/AP/file

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The Chicago mayoral field is narrowing.

On New Year’s Eve, US Rep. Danny Davis (D) announced he was bowing out, ceding the title of “consensus candidate” for the African-American community to Carol Moseley Braun, a former US senator.

Representative Davis’s decision leaves four main candidates in the field to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley: Ms. Braun, former school-board president Gery Chico, City Clerk Miguel del Valle, and Rahm Emanuel, who has been the front-runner since leaving his post as President Obama's chief of staff to launch a bid.

The African-American community has tried for some time to coalesce around a single candidate, but until last week, both Davis and Braun seemed determined to stay in the race. The decision changes the dynamics of the race, making it much more likely that Braun and Mr. Emanuel will be the two top vote-getters on Feb. 22 and will head into an April runoff election (if no candidate gets a majority of the vote).

With a city that's still largely racially segregated, the narrowed candidate field increases the likelihood that the election will be defined along racial lines.

“Emanuel will get some black votes, and likewise I expect Carol and Chico to get white votes,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and now a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It’s not quite the polarization like it was [when Harold Washington became the first African-American Chicago mayor in 1983]. But there are racial factors, as there always are in Chicago elections.”

When Mr. Washington was elected, it was through a coalition of black and Latino voters. His effectiveness as mayor was hampered by bitter, racially polarized battles in the City Council known as the “council wars.”

Since then, however, more politicians have achieved crossover support from other communities. Four years ago, Robert Fioretti, a white man, managed to unseat a black alderman in a mixed – but majority black – ward, notes Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant. And Toni Preckwinkle, an African-American woman, recently won election as Cook County Board president with substantial support from white voters. She won despite being up against two other black candidates, and Terrence O’Brien – the white, Irish, “Democratic machine” candidate – didn’t beat her in the largely white wards as many expected.

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“If the [mayoral] campaign turns into a racial donnybrook, it’s bad. But I believe we’re at a mature point where we’ve seen the lines break down on two ends,” Mr. Rose says.

Still, he and others say, Braun faces a tricky path in which she needs to solidify the support of the black community without alienating white and Latino voters, whose votes she would need to prevail in a runoff election.

A rally on New Year’s Day emphasized Braun’s role as the African-American choice, with Davis saying, “I want to make sure at least one of us has what is needed.” State Sen. James Meeks, who dropped out of the race last month, also offered his support. “People said that our egos were too big [to come together], but we proved everybody wrong,” Senator Meeks said. "We need one African-American candidate running for mayor of the city of Chicago.”

Braun, meanwhile, sought to cast her net a little wider, arguing that her appeal is broader than just the African-American community.

"We're going to bring black, white, brown, one side of town to the other back together again to create jobs,” she said.

Braun, who became America’s first black woman senator when she was elected in 1992, brings national name recognition to the race along with Emanuel. But her critics say she also brings a fair amount of baggage, including questions from her Senate term about possible corruption and misuse of campaign funds, as well as the fact that she failed to win reelection.

“She’s really going to have to shake off a lot of lingering doubts about her abilities,” says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

Right now, Braun is emphasizing Emanuel’s “outsider” status. His eligibility to run for mayor has been challenged because he hasn’t lived in Chicago for the past year. While he has prevailed so far in that challenge and is likely to remain on the ballot, his opponents will continue to paint him as someone who is not a true Chicagoan.

Assuming the election goes to a runoff – the most likely scenario – a key factor will be which candidate is the most acceptable “second choice” to other ethnic groups, Professor Redfield says. If Braun and Emanuel are the runoff candidates, the Latino community will be heavily courted by both.

“They’ve always been the swing,” says Professor Simpson, noting that Hispanics helped carry both Washington and Mayor Daley (in his first few elections) to victory.

Still, even though African-American and white populations each make up a little over 40 percent of the Chicago vote, it’s not a given that Braun and Emanuel will be the top candidates. Mr. Chico – who announced Monday that he has already raised more than $2.5 million for his campaign – is also a top contender.

Emanuel has emerged on top in all the polls so far, and he's still the likeliest candidate to succeed Daley. But in Chicago, anything can happen.

“I don’t think there’s any problem of [Emanuel] making the runoff, but then there’s the question of whether the other votes can be won over,” says Simpson. “And that’s really an open question.... Will the majority of Latinos go to one side or another? That will probably determine the outcome.”

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