Chicago runoff? Despite big lead, Rahm Emanuel may come up just short.

The latest poll shows Rahm Emanuel with 49 percent support in the race for Chicago mayor, just shy of the majority he needs. In second place with 19 percent, Gery Chico is talking runoff.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff writer Christian Science Monitor

posted February 11, 2011 at 8:55 pm EST

Chicago — Despite holding a wide lead over his nearest rival, Rahm Emanuel may face a runoff in his bid to become the next mayor of Chicago, polls show.

Since declaring his candidacy in October, Mr. Emanuel has enjoyed frontrunner status in the race to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is stepping down after 22 years in office.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released Friday shows Emanuel’s lead at 49 percent, his highest so far and more than twice the 19 percent favoring Gery Chico, the former Chicago Board of Education president who is now Emanuel’s closest rival in the race.

But even with such a considerable lead in the polls, Emanuel could be forced into a runoff with Mr. Chico if he is unable to achieve the majority of the vote on Election Day, Feb. 22.

The runoff, scheduled for April 5, would largely benefit Chico, who would be given six more weeks to blast Emanuel and to court supporters of the other candidates in the race, including former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle.

On Friday, Chico appeared confident his campaign will continue into April.

“We have a robust field operation. If we’re doing our jobs right, there’s going to be a runoff,” he said at an afternoon press stop at a restaurant in Pilsen, a largely Mexican neighborhood just south of downtown.

Chico’s increase of 4 percentage points since the last Tribune/WGN poll in January coincides with a sharper tone in his campaign. Since late January, Chico has been capitalizing on Emanuel’s plan to initiate a tax on luxury services such as pet grooming and private club memberships to make up for his proposed reduction in the city’s total sales-tax rate.

Chico has used the proposal to suggest Emanuel is waging war on working families and says it will hurt small businesses like barber shops and local gyms.

Chico calls Emanuel elitist

There is also the issue of pedigree. Chico continues to portray Emanuel as an elitist who is out of touch with working families. At a debate sponsored by the Urban League and Fox News Chicago Thursday, Chico returned to his personal narrative as a child born on the city’s southwest side as a way of explaining he understood issues like street violence.

“There are people like Mr. Emanuel, who grew up in the wealthy North Shore and probably never experienced that,” he said.

Chico may also be benefiting from the missteps of Ms. Braun, who once occupied second place in the polls but whose support has diminished in recent weeks, putting her in third place at 10 percent, 11 percentage points from where she was last month.

Braun’s campaign has suffered from several gaffes, including her initial refusal to release her federal and state tax returns and her demand that the Chicago Sun-Times fire a local columnist she called a “verified drunk and a wife beater” after he wrote a column criticizing her campaign.

The latest took place in late January when, at a community forum, Braun referred to community activist and mayoral candidate Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins as being “strung out on crack.” The accusation was an apparent reference to Ms. Van Pelt-Watkins’s admission that, as a teenager in the 1970s, she abused drugs. After the video went viral and led the local news for days, Braun apologized.

Emanuel leads the polling among black and white voters but not Latinos. Chico, who is half Mexican, is supported by 38 percent of Latino voters to Emanuel’s 34 percent. In the event of a runoff, Chico will likely court the 18 percent of Latinos who support Mr. del Valle, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

Race not prominent in election

Despite those divisions, racial politics are not prominent in this current election cycle. John Mark Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says Chicago has been “much less racially polarized” under the current Mayor Daley than during the era of his late father, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

The younger Daley is widely credited with helping stabilize the racial conflict between neighborhoods by distributing city services fairly and opening the doors to ethnic groups by giving their leaders prominent roles in his administration. His overtures had a political benefit by diminishing the pool of opponents each election cycle.

Before Daley, “Chicago was always a city that worked but it used to work just for some people,” says Mr. Hansen. “I would anticipate that the first the new mayor is going to do is make sure that continues.”

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