By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 3:03 AM
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has made no secret of his desire to run for mayor of Chicago one day, saying as recently as April that becoming chief executive of his home town had "always been an aspiration."
Suddenly, he has his chance.
With the surprise announcement Tuesday that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) will not run next year for a seventh term, speculation in Washington quickly turned to whether Emanuel will seek the job. White House officials spent the afternoon informally speculating about the odds that Emanuel might leave - and pondering who would replace him if he did.
Almost universally, political strategists said they expected Emanuel, a former Illinois congressman, to seize the opening. "I'd be shocked if he didn't run," a senior White House official said.
Daley, 68, announced his retirement on the steps of City Hall, taking even some of his closest allies by surprise. Although his approval ratings have slipped over the past year, Daley said it was a "personal decision" made after more than two decades as Chicago mayor, a tenure that will surpass even that of his father, who was mayor from 1955 to 1976.
"It's time for Chicago to move on," Daley said. "I've given it my all."
A return to Chicago would bring Emanuel, 50, full circle to the city where he stuffed political pamphlets into mailboxes as a high-schooler and where his mother was a political activist. Emanuel rose to national prominence as the chief fundraiser for Daley's first mayoral campaign in 1989, working alongside another future architect of the Obama presidency, David Axelrod.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Axelrod said that he and Emanuel were both "a little stunned" to learn of Daley's retirement plans, adding that they had both "strongly assumed" he would run for another term in 2011.
"So we're just absorbing that news," Axelrod said. As for Emanuel, Axelrod said that he "has got a lot on his plate right now."
"He's got a pretty responsible job," he said. "And that's what he's focused on right now."
Other Obama advisers and friends - several of them deeply versed in Illinois politics - said it would be hard to envision Emanuel passing up an opportunity to run for the only elected office he has said he wants. He is especially eager to return to the role of principal, something he sacrificed by relinquishing his congressional seat to serve as chief of staff, several colleagues said.
"He enjoys the rough and tumble. He enjoys making decisions. And he loves the city of Chicago," said one friend of Emanuel's. "I can't imagine this is something he would pass on."
The list of possible successors as chief of staff is lengthy and includes senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, deputy national security adviser Thomas Donilon, senior adviser Pete Rouse and Obama's head of legislative affairs, Phil Schiliro. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is a possible contender, as are former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.
Widely known simply as Rahm, Emanuel would enter the mayor's race with certain advantages - including $1.2 million in his old congressional campaign account (much of which presumably could be transferred to a mayoral race), name recognition and the potential backing of a president who is still popular in his home state.
But he would face challenges, including a divided electorate that could be suspicious of a candidate whose most recent address was in D.C. "There's no guarantee he would win," said a Democratic strategist with extensive Chicago experience. "Rahm will have a tough race."
How long Emanuel would stay on as White House chief of staff has long been a topic of rumor and speculation, with the expectation that he would stay at least through the midterm elections this November. He has told friends that he paid his children's private-school tuition through next spring, a detail interpreted to mean that he would probably leave in mid-2011.
A few hours after Daley's announcement, Emanuel issued a statement - but did not address a flood of questions about his future. "While Mayor Daley surprised me today with his decision to not run for reelection, I have never been surprised by his leadership, dedication and tireless work on behalf of the city and the people of Chicago," he said.
Emanuel does not have the luxury of time to make a decision. The filing deadline for nominating papers is Nov. 22, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners' Web site - just under three weeks after the midterm elections.The signature-gathering requirements are not onerous but probably would require Emanuel to make a decision in advance of the midterms.
Friends said there is one benefit to the timing of Daley's announcement: If Emanuel does decide to run, it would allow him to leave the capital in time to avoid the post-election finger-pointing that would result if Democrats lost control of the House or Senate.
"It's an artful way out of Washington," said a Chicago-based strategist. "That place is going to be full of recriminations. . . . It's a perfect way to parachute out of that."
Staff writers Chris Cillizza, Karen Tumulty and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.