"Rahm, if he wants to run, he can come to town and raise money and run and run and run and run," said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. "But the local people of Chicago are going to determine who their next mayor is, not Barack Obama and not Rahm Emanuel."
The president, in an ABC interview aired Thursday, said he does not expect Emanuel to announce whether he's running until after Nov. 2 midterm elections. That's less than three weeks before mayoral hopefuls must declare their candidacies and submit a minimum of 12,500 valid signatures from registered voters.
"I think he would be an excellent mayor," Obama said. "He is an excellent chief of staff. I think right now, as long as he is in the White House, he is critically focused on making sure that we're creating jobs for families around the country and rebuilding our economy. ... But I think he would be a terrific mayor."
The Chicago-born Emanuel, 50, a bare-knuckled veteran of Democratic politics, has high name identification, formidable campaign experience and hard-core fundraising muscle.
But possible opponents said he has weaknesses as well. They noted that he likely would face a competitive, crowded and diverse field — what one observer called a "Rubik's Cube." Some cite Emanuel's "baggage" and say he would be handicapped by the anti- Washington mood and the difficulty of crafting an underlying rationale for his candidacy in light of the administration's inability to whip the economy into shape.
Emanuel, through his spokeswoman, turned down an interview request Thursday, a day when he was observing the Jewish holy day Rosh Hashana. But an Emanuel associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the chief of staff was shocked by Daley's retirement announcement Tuesday and is mulling his options, with political, professional and family considerations at stake.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who represents Emanuel's old congressional district, is among those who may give the race a go. He said Thursday that Emanuel is "a very smart guy" and "as politically astute as anyone in the universe."
Quigley, though, said Emanuel's close relationship with Daley is both a plus and a minus, especially considering Daley's recent poll ratings in the 30s and the corruption scandals that have dogged his administration.
Quigley said one question about Emanuel looms large: "What have you run? Have you run anything that compares to running a corporation the size of the city of Chicago?"
Davis, who has not ruled out a bid for mayor, said he wasn't overly impressed with Obama's praise of Emanuel, noting that it was normal for a boss to laud a staffer. And he said Emanuel has no automatic claim on the job.
"If your name is not Daley, there is no heir apparent," Davis said. "If your name is not Rahm Daley, you are not heir apparent."
Another consideration for Emanuel and any potential candidate, according to Quigley, is the nature of the battle ahead.
"Everybody knows these are tough, bloody races in Chicago," he said. "They're not for the faint of heart."
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who also is considering a mayoral bid, told CNN on Thursday that he had "not made that judgment" yet.
"If Rahm Emanuel does make the decision to run for the mayor of Chicago, it will become a national campaign," Jackson said. "This will not be a local race, run by a local candidate, just debating local issues. It will be about urban policy. It will be about the president's agenda."
"He'll be running on his two years as chief of staff," Jackson said, citing high unemployment among several issues.
Chicago is a tale of two cities, Jackson said, and some parts of the city have been left behind.
"We don't want someone anointed from the outside," Jackson said, adding that Emanuel hasn't spent much time in Chicago of late. "He has the big money, he has the fame and he has, potentially, the charisma. And don't get me wrong, Rahm has some tremendous strengths. He also has some profound weaknesses."
Emanuel is a veteran of both Obama's and Bill Clinton's White House, a three-term member of Congress and former investment banker. He is married with three children, the oldest of whom is about 13, and his family moved to Washington but keeps a Chicago home.
He was to appear Sunday at a Chicago fundraiser for Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill. That's been canceled because of other commitments and is to be rescheduled, their aides said.
Political scientist Norm Ornstein, with the American Enterprise Institute, said he's convinced Emanuel is in. Emanuel "has for many years made no secret about the fact that this is his dream job and these jobs come along infrequently," Ornstein said.
Ornstein said whichever way the midterms turn out, there's a natural transition in their wake. Even if Democrats fared poorly, Emanuel could make his exit without anyone calling him a sacrificial lamb or accusing him of "bailing because times got bad," he said.