County Board President Toni Preckwinkle joined the crowded race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an event carefully orchestrated to create the air of invincibility.

Preckwinkle’s image as the heavyweight in the ring was strengthened when her County Board floor leader, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, took a pass on the mayor’s race, opting instead to take the seat in Congress passed off to him by retiring U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago.

But Democratic operatives not aligned with any of the mayoral candidates are privately questioning whether Preckwinkle’s image as the mayoral frontrunner is more spin than substance.

ANALYSIS

They point to the sizable protest vote against Preckwinkle in her March Democratic primary battle against an unfunded, uninspiring and relatively unknown challenger in former Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).

Fioretti managed to get at least a third of the vote and up to 40 percent of the vote in African-American wards that should and must be a cornerstone of Preckwinkle’s political base.

They point to polls conducted for other Democratic campaigns showing Preckwinkle with an approval rating lower than Emanuel’s and negatives “through the roof” that have never been fully exploited.

Most of all, they anticipate the mayoral candidacy of Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who is 25 years younger than Preckwinkle and a proven vote-getter along the lakefront and among younger voters now dominating the political scene.

Mendoza can’t enter the mayor’s race — or even talk about it — until she is safely re-elected as state comptroller. But after the Nov. 6 election, she’ll have 20 days to gather the 12,500 signatures needing to get on the mayoral ballot.

“Toni starts out in a good place with a sizable base. But it’s not enough to avoid a runoff or make this an inevitable outcome for her,” said one Democratic operative, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating Preckwinkle.

“Her strength is voters know who she is. But that’s also her weakness. She has a real generational issue in both her style and her age. That makes it difficult for her to court younger voters.”

Yet another Democratic operative argued that Preckwinkle’s record at the county has never been put “under the microscope” with media attention focused on City Hall. When it is, she might find it difficult to defend, the operative contended.

“She raised the sales tax after saying she wouldn’t and tried to impose a soda tax, only to have it repealed. It’s gonna be hard to convince that same group of voters you’re the person to elect as mayor after two of the most regressive tax increases in history,” the source said.

“Joe Berrios is more unpopular along the lakefront than Donald Trump. He’s presided over what many people believe is a corrupt office that assesses property unfairly. Yet Toni Preckwinkle has defended him without apology. She’s the Democratic Party chairman. Her style is to be an old-school deal-cutter. That may work with the City Council. It may not work with voters.”

A third Democratic operative noted that Preckwinkle’s bail reform initiatives to reduce the population of Cook County Jail have alienated police officers who live on the Northwest and Southwest Sides.

“She’s never had a contested race … That’s why she’s trying to elbow everybody out of the race and create a coronation so she won’t have to go through a bloody election,” the third operative said.

So far, the heavy-handed approach isn’t working.

Despite a whispering campaign that she’s considering dropping out, former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot is staying in. So are millionaire businessman Willie Wilson and Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.

Mendoza, 46, could not be reached for comment.

Preckwinkle, 71, refused to say whether she’s concerned about her own negatives or about the generational and stylistic contrasts between herself and Mendoza, who is widely viewed as more collaborative.

Nor would Preckwinkle discuss the potential for a political backlash triggered by her tax policies and her close relationship with Berrios, who was resoundingly defeated in the Democratic primary by Garcia-backed Fritz Kaegi.

Instead, Preckwinkle tried to stay on message about the “very aggressive” campaign she intends to run and the rainbow coalition she is attempting to build to match the one that culminated in the historic 1983 election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor.

“We’re gonna take absolutely nothing for granted. We’re gonna go everywhere and talk to as many people as we can. We’re trying to build a movement. That movement is inclusive. It includes folks from all 77 communities. It’s gonna be across boundaries of gender, race, age and geography,” Preckwinkle said.

“I’ll continue to take my campaign directly to the voters. I’m gonna speak to them about … the importance of having great neighborhood schools across the city, instead of just in some neighborhoods. Working hard on economic development and community building in the same way I did as alderman of the 4th Ward for almost 20 years. And then working on police accountability and implementing the consent decree, which is critical, both for accountability … and confidence in our communities.”

After opting out of the mayor’s race, Garcia said he was “not a vindictive person” and would not withhold an endorsement from Preckwinkle simply because she did the same to him in his 2015 mayoral runoff against Emanuel.

Instead, Garcia said he would wait to see what kind of vision Preckwinkle articulates to end Chicago’s “tale of two cities,” paying particular attention to her tax policies.

“Everyone likes to call themselves a progressive. Not everyone is. It’s about substance. It’s about transformation. It’s about taking on the political establishment and devising a program that will invest in communities that need it most and give us progressive revenue sources to make Chicago … a livable city for all,” Garcia said in an interview with WTTW-TV Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight.”

Pressed on whether he considers Preckwinkle a progressive, Garcia said, “she has enjoyed that reputation. But now, seeking the most important office in Illinois … will give her an opportunity to show how she will be transformative and not simply status-quo politics in Chicago. The city cannot afford it anymore.”

Former Hispanic Democratic Organization chieftain Victor Reyes is a political operative who has spoken to five of the top-tier mayoral candidates but is “leaning toward” joining the Preckwinkle campaign.

Reyes has acknowledged that Garcia’s exit created an “opportunity” for Mendoza. But he argued that Preckwinkle benefits most.

“She now has the potential to create that elusive coalition of African-Americans and Latinos. It’s not necessary to her victory. She could win with African-Americans and progressive votes on the lakefront. But she now has the potential to have Latinos, especially progressive Latinos, and lakefront voters and African Americans. She’s the only one who could put that coalition together,” Reyes said.

Until Mendoza enters the race, Gery Chico remains the only Hispanic candidate in the crowded field. In 2011, Chico nearly forced Emanuel into a runoff with support from Gutierrez.

But Gutierrez ruled out reprising his 2011 endorsement of Chico.

“He’s a multi-million dollar-a-year lobbyist. That would not bode well in terms of giving fresh independent neighborhood leadership,” Gutierrez said.

Chico countered that he “grew up in eight different neighborhoods part of the quilt” of Chicago and pumped gas at a station in Back of the Yards. He and his children attended Chicago Public Schools. He “helped build public schools” as Board of Education president under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“It was growing up on the streets of Chicago that motivated me more than ever and made me successful,” he said.

“I make no apologies for how I grew up and how it developed my character and made me into the person I am today. My background makes me the most qualified person to drive this city forward.”