John Baer | Mayor's-race riddles: Why do the qualified lag?

I ADMIT IT. I'm perplexed.

There are mysteries in the mayor's race I can't begin to understand. Take Dwight Evans. Or Michael Nutter. Or, while we're at it, Chaka Fattah.

I fully understand Tom Knox. Spend, spend, spend while others can't.

I get Bob Brady. Good ole union neighborhood guy with git-r-done connections and "political infrastructure" to get out a vote.

But the others? Mysteries.

Evans first. Why, given his experience, what he knows, what he's done for schools and law enforcement, how his North Philly House district is a mini-town of economic, social and public-safety gains he could maybe bring the whole city, is he last in the latest Daily News poll?

Why, given the story he has to tell and his work on every important issue in the last two decades, especially gun violence, does he run a TV ad about a kid getting on a SEPTA bus with a table?

Why did he stand with Knox to challenge Brady on the ballot, adding credibility to that challenge and helping Knox appear to be more than some rich guy using his money to oust an opponent?

And, why - and this is the big question - is someone with such evident experience, vision and ability to run the city winning such minimal support to do so?

It's his presentation, I'm told. The way he comes across. Too serious, almost angry. As if he's talking down to people, lecturing rather than including them. A veteran Democratic operative says, "Dwight is like a tenured university professor with a detailed, developed syllabus. But he's teaching a high-school class and it's sailing over their heads."

And maybe that's it. But I can tell you Evans is not angry, is not too serious. What he is is for real, no matter what comes across.

I feel the same about Nutter. Smart, experienced, capable. He, too, let's be honest, would make a fine mayor.

Yet I keep hearing he can't win because he's "not black enough," because issues he's most identified with (smoking ban, ethics, campaign finance) are nonissues in the neighborhoods.

And why do TV-trashing of Mayor Street, who (a) isn't on the ballot and (b) retains support among lots of African-American voters no matter how low his approval ratings?

Oh, and Nutter's nasal voice can sound like whining.

But Nutter fought for more police and tax cuts and was up to his eyeballs in all issues for close to 15 years on City Council. And I actually like his TV ad. It should at least get him some notice.

Evans and Nutter are the longtime, hands-on laborers most familiar with city problems. Yet they trail the field and (worse, for them) face growing perceptions they can't win.

Fattah? The mystery to me is what's going on.

Regarded by many as front-runner since '05, when he started serious campaign planning, Fattah has had recent minor missteps (tax returns and finance reports) that strike me as surprising.

Certainly at some point in a two-year run-up to his candidacy, there was discussion about how best to handle release of tax returns and issues such as his TV wife's big fat salary.

Yet it seems such decisions were bungled on the fly.

He has a dream team of advisers, including David Axelrod (who advises Barack Obama), Greg Naylor, Herb Vederman and Tony Podesta, all veteran pros of Philly, state and national politics.

His run should run as smoothly as a five-figure Rolex watch.

But it seems slightly off, like someone forgot to spring forward.

Overconfident? Waiting too long to go on TV?

I just don't know.

But I do know the race now enters a critical period when average voters start to tune in. And maybe that'll bring candidates and campaigns into sharper focus. I hope so. Clearing myster-ies. *

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