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Where Rahm Emanuel’s ‘head is at’ on runoff strategy

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is known for brute-force politics, but never before has he had to fight for his own political life.

Now, facing a tough battle with challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to stay in office, Emanuel is trying to smooth out his own rough edges while waging a four-week war with four goals:

• Build a stronger field operation to boost voter turnout, particularly among white-ethnic and African-American voters.

• Use surrogates to try to carve out for himself a healthy chunk of Garcia’s Hispanic base.

• Carefully exploit historic tensions between Hispanics and blacks.

• Portray Garcia as indecisive, inexperienced and incapable of leading a city that’s wavering on the financial brink.

“This is not four weeks of destruction or scorched-earth,” said an Emanuel strategist, who agreed to speak only on the condition of not being named. “We’re looking to make sure the differences between the candidates are stark. It’s a comparison that’s very favorable to us.

“Chuy Garcia has served in three different legislative bodies. The only remarkable thing about him is how unremarkable his record is.”

Paul Begala and James Carville, who served with Emanuel in the Clinton White House, both have given political advice to their close friend — advice they declined to talk about.

But Begala said the extraordinary mea culpa commercial that features Emanuel looking straight into the camera and saying, “I can rub people the wrong way or talk when I should listen,” is a “very strong reflection of where his head is at.

“It’s a very different race than the first time,” Begala said. “It’s a choice now — not a referendum [on Emanuel]. That’s an enormous strategic shift.”

Carville said he sees the runoff and what Emanuel needs to do this way:

“It’s a close race. It’s got to be a contrast: ‘This is my record. This is what I offer. This is what I propose to do. This is what my opponent proposes to do.’ The choice has to be framed. Chicagoans have to make a decision. That happens more often than not when an incumbent is running and people say, ‘I’ll just vote against the incumbent.’ ”

The Chicago Sun-Times interviewed five political strategists with ties to Emanuel to get a sense of the mayor’s game plan for the runoff. All agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, not wanting to alienate the notoriously controlling Emanuel.

All said they think Emanuel is in real danger of becoming a one-term mayor. But all also said that, if the following campaign strategy is executed well, he can win re-election:

BLACK VOTE: Four years ago, Emanuel got 58 percent of the African-American vote and captured every black ward on the strength of President Barack Obama’s tacit endorsement of his former White House chief of staff.

But in the Feb. 24 election, the mayor got just 42 percent of a much smaller pie. Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson got 25 percent of the black vote, thanks to residual anger from the mayor’s 50 school closings, downtown-centric development and his failure to get a handle on persistent crime.

The intense courtship of Wilson by both Emanuel and Garcia is an acknowledgement that the black vote could well decide the runoff.

Using all of the traditional means — group meetings, robo-calls, direct mail, radio and television commercials — Emanuel hopes to boost black voter turnout and get more than 50 percent of that vote. He also plans to use black ministers, elected officials and business leaders to carry his message.

Wilson’s endorsement, if Emanuel gets it, would be a piece of the puzzle. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s decision, if it holds, to remain neutral in spite of her close ties to Garcia and her difficult relationship with Emanuel was even more important.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., though, said he’s “very inclined” to back Garcia.

“Chuy was one of my delegates when I ran [for president] in `88,” Jackson said. “Chuy supported Harold Washington. We’ve been together for a long time. I’m very inclined toward Chuy because of our relationship and what he represents.

“We created a platform for all the candidates. Chuy showed up. Was very well received. Rahm did not show up. Chuy came to express his thanks [after forcing a runoff]. He has lots of support among many of our allies.”

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, was forced into a runoff after getting just 41.6 percent of the vote despite formidable financial support from a pro-Emanuel super PAC. Brookins said Emanuel can boost his support among black voters enough to get a second term but only if he takes his message directly to African-American voters.

“He has to better articulate the things that he’s done and the things he’s willing to do going forward,” Brookins said. “If he does that, he could turn those sentiments around and sway enough of those people who are against him to get the 50 percent he needs to win.

“Four years ago, a lot of people went on faith and on the recommendation of the president and essentially gave Rahm a pass without having a concrete agenda for the African-American community. This time, he has to get his message out to individuals so they can hear his answer about what he’s trying to do or willing to do to bring about a change in these under-served communities.”

BLACK-HISPANIC RIVALRY: There’s no denying the historic tension in Chicago between blacks and Hispanics that has pushed the groups to compete with each other for jobs and contracts while immigration reform has leapfrogged over the issue of economic fairness.

The rivalry was made worse by former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization at the center of the city hiring scandal. Wilson has talked openly about it. Emanuel needs to convince African-American voters they would be better off with him than if Garcia becomes Chicago’s first Hispanic mayor and feels pressure to deliver for Hispanics at the expense of blacks.

HISPANIC VOTE: Though Garcia captured 70.8 percent of the vote in his home 22nd Ward, 67 percent in the 12th Ward and captured 14 wards overall, all of them predominantly Hispanic, Emanuel also got his share of the Hispanic vote. With U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and City Clerk Susana Mendoza in his corner, Emanuel needs to cut even farther into Garcia’s base.

“Chuy is left, left, left. The Hispanic community is not to the left. It generally runs to the center between the 40-yard lines,” said a mayoral ally, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

WHITE ETHNICS: Garcia forced Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff by doing better than expected among white-ethnic voters on the Northwest Side and the Southwest Side. Some of that support came from police officers, firefighters, teachers and other city workers protesting Emanuel’s plan to cut their pension and retiree health benefits or his threat to do so. Some of it owed to Emanuel’s broken promise to hire 1,000 more police officers and his decision to turn a deaf ear to skyrocketing complaints about O’Hare Airport jet noise, while Garcia signed on to the demands of noise-weary residents.

Emanuel’s challenge is to use his support from organized labor to claim votes that went to Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) in Round One. He also needs to draw even bigger numbers from the wards where he did better in February than he did in 2011, including the 19th and 41st Wards — which might mean agreeing to a meeting or  hearing on O’Hare noise that Northwest Side residents have been demanding for more than a year.

GET OUT THE VOTE: The 34 percent turnout should have been a boon to a deep-pockets incumbent who outspent his opponent by 12-to-1. But it was the opposite for Emanuel. His vaunted get-out-the-vote operation proved to be a bust this time.

Garcia, meanwhile, had an army of roughly 4,000 field workers from the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Health Care. Emanuel had no such enthusiasm in the field. He relied on Obama-style technology instead of old-fashioned shoe-leather and paid the price, failing to get enough of his voters to the polls.

In the 42nd and 43rd Wards, Emanuel racked up his biggest margins — 73.2 percent and 71.8 percent. But the turnout in those wards was way down — declining from 18,828 voters in 2011 to 8,498 in the 42nd Ward and from 14,914 to 9,950 in the 43rd Ward.

Emanuel needs to quickly put together a more robust ground game, in part by using organizations run by ward bosses like Dick Mell (33rd), Marge Laurino (39th) and Pat O’Connor (40th) that no longer are tied up with aldermanic elections.

“Complacency worked against us,” said one Emanuel strategist.

Another mayoral ally noted that field operations have “never been Rahm’s forte,” saying his strength, rather, has been strategy and messaging.

“He should spend as much money on voter outreach, identifying his voters and getting them to the polls as he does on television,” the Emanuel ally said.

FRAMING THE CHOICE: This already has become apparent in recent days. The Emanuel campaign put out a web video ridiculing Garcia for pleading for more time to do his “homework” before he provides specifics about how he would deal with Chicago’s $20 billion pension crisis and $300 million operating shortfall.

Emanuel also has tried to exploit Garcia’s flip-flop on the use of parkland for an Obama presidential library in Chicago and to press Garcia to explain where he would find the $100 million needed to hire 1,000 additional police officers.

Expect to see more of the same for the next month — and a whole lot more during the three debates.

Also expect Emanuel to pointedly question how a Mayor Garcia could negotiate a teachers contract when his campaign has been so heavily funded by the Chicago Teachers Union. Opposition research probably already has pinpointed controversial Garcia votes not just in his current position as a Cook County Board member but also when he was in the City Council and the Illinois Senate.

“The next four weeks will be liberating for Rahm Emanuel,” a mayoral adviser said. “He’s ready to have it out.

“It’s not Rahm Emanuel vs. Rahm Emanuel anymore. It’s Rahm Emanuel vs. someone who offers no solutions, no ideas. That’s freeing for him. He feels like the shackles are off.”

THE NEW RAHM: Emanuel’s likeability problem and his dictatorial, top-down management style are part of the reason he’s in this mess. But he’s not about to escape that just by putting on a V-neck sweater and admitting his “greatest faults” are also his “greatest weakness.” The question is whether he can convince Chicago voters that he has matured and changed enough to adopt a more collaborative style in a second term. It just might take a second commercial to convince people he’s sincere — and not just scared of losing.