CHICAGO, Jan. 18, 2011 -- Rahm Emanuel's old boss came to Chicago today to give him a job referral. Speaking on behalf of his former senior advisor, who is now running for mayor here, President Bill Clinton told a downtown rally that "If you want the Windy City to have a gale force of leadership, then Rahm Emanuel is your mayor."
Though Clinton focused on Emanuel's role in his administration's many policy battles, he could not resist an apparent reference to a current controversy generated by the Tucson massacre. Recalling a visit to Chicago to defend the assault weapons ban he pushed through Congress in 1994, Clinton said, "I still think it's wrong to be able to carry a gun around that will fire 30 bullets in no time."
Jared Loughner, the alleged Tucson shooter, used a semi-automatic weapon fitted with an extended clip holding 33 bullets.
While the line brought loud cheers, Clinton made no specific mention of the Arizona incident.
He was not tentative, however, about wading into local controversy. Emanuel's campaign has been dogged by charges that he is an "outsider" because of his extended time in Washington. He was an advisor to Clinton, then a Congressman, then chief of staff for President Obama. He has even endured a legal battle over whether his time away disqualified him from running for mayor.
That "anyone would consider him an outsider to Chicago," said Clinton, "would come as an astonishing surprise to anyone who ever worked for me. We always knew where his heart was."
But Clinton avoided another theme running through the mayoral campaign here, one that his visit may have elevated: race. Less than a month ago, there were three major African American candidates. Since then, in a controversial effort brokered by Rev. Jesse Jackson to avoid splitting support among black voters, former Senator and presidential contender Carol Moseley Braun became the "consensus" candidate of the African American community.
Bill Clinton Leads Rally for Rahm Emanuel in Chicago
When Clinton's visit was announced back in December, Rep. Danny Davis, one of the candidates who ceded the field to Moseley Braun, said that the appearance on behalf of Emanuel would jeopardize the "tremendous affinity between the African-American community and the Clintons."
Bill Clinton has sometimes been called the "first black president" because of his appeal among African-American voters. His support for Emanuel was seen as potentially siphoning votes from Moseley Braun's so-called "unity" candidacy.
But if Moseley Braun has lost support, it is most likely because of her own mistakes. She picked a fight with a Chicago Sun-Times columnist who wrote a column critical of her campaign, calling him a "drunk and a wife-beater". Then she refused to release her income taxes as other candidates had with a flippant "because I don't want to."
When she finally did release the documents, they were incomplete and showed that her business was in significant debt.
Now, polls show Rahm Emanuel with a significant lead over the field. Surveys over the past month show him with anywhere from 32 to 42 percent of the vote, while Moseley Braun and two Hispanic candidates are far behind.
But he will need at least 50 percent on election day next month to avoid a runoff. And some Chicago political observers say that Bill Clinton's heavyweight support might not help him get there.
"It's a two edged sword," says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Yes, it helps him raise money and get a lot of media attention. But it also raises again the question of whether he is an 'outsider'. Rahm's still got to prove himself a Chicagoan."