John Baer | Nutter's candidacy moving fast - but uphill

AT 7:30 ON A RECENT morning at a subway stop in Center City, Michael Nutter claps his hands, rocks on his heels, greets commuters and revels in the rhythms of retail politics.

"That's my spin move," he says, pivoting from one passer-by to the next.

A woman stops: "If I lived in the city I'd vote for you twice," she says.

"A true Philadelphian," jokes Nutter.

Most seem to know him. Or at least know they should. Several comment on his TV ads, especially one featuring his daughter Olivia.

A guy at a nearby newsstand shows a pack of Nutter Butter cookies.

"The campaign cookie!" calls the candidate, "A great way to start the day!"

Nutter does this twice weekly, part of his run for mayor, a run for which he resigned from City Council last summer after 15 years, a run that yet hasn't garnered great traction.

But on this gray morning, he's in suit and tie, splendidly sartorial as usual, working to connect with the common man, and it seems to be working fairly well.

Most folks (for the hour and the place) are surprisingly receptive.

It looks like Nutter's connecting.

And why not? He's smart, makes sense and understands the challenges of running Philadelphia. He details spending for campaign promises of adding 500 cops over five years, more surveillance cameras, youth violence reduction and after-school programs, reduced wage taxes and more.

Business likes him. At a Center City real-estate conference, he says, "We have to lose the distinction of having the highest local tax burden of any big city in America," and draws sustained applause.

His decision not to spend early but go on TV strong and sustained with all-pro adman Neil Oxman might be paying off. Nutter's poll says he's moving fast in the field of five, second only to Tom Knox.

"It's timing," Nutter tells me. "It's when voters are paying attention."

Yet it feels like he's running uphill.

The knock on Nutter - known for pushing tax cuts, ethics and campaign-finance reform, and the smoking ban - is no large base or turn-out-the-vote organization and "not black enough."

When I ask about these, he says field organizations are over-rated, often paid for with national money in presidential years. We'll see.

He then looks at his hand and calls to an aide: "Erica, do you know I'm black? Is that coming across?" Erica affirms both.

"I grew up at 55th & Larchwood," he says, "It don't get much blacker than that." He says he talks about issues important to people no matter their race, and adds, "Tell me how you fill a black pothole."

He calls the "not black enough" notion nonsense, a ploy pushed by opponents with nothing else to attack.

As we talk, we walk through Center City in midafternoon. We're interrupted by folks stopping Nutter, including three young blacks in ball caps and baggy pants. One tells Nutter, "Keep your head up, yo."

As we walk on, Nutter says, "Want a translation? 'I know they're effin' with you; be strong.' "

But polling suggests Nutter faces challenges among African-American voters, who make up a majority of registered Democrats in the city.

In the last Daily News/Keystone Poll, Nutter did better with whites than blacks. He was stronger among whites than Chaka Fattah and Dwight Evans combined. Among blacks, he was behind Fattah, Evans and Knox, and just one point ahead of Bob Brady.

In a Philadelphia Tribune poll asking which candidate is best on issues important to black voters, Nutter ran way behind the other two black candidates: Evans, 50; Fattah, 49; Nutter, 25.

Both polls carried high percentages of undecideds. But still.

I've heard insiders, black and white, say Nutter's St. Joe's Prep and Ivy League (Penn) education left him too polished, that issues he's most identified with, such as campaign-finance reform and the smoking ban, just aren't important in many black neighborhoods, and that Nutter's silky style doesn't play well with some black voters.

This is mostly bunk. Polished is good. He's right on issues. And whose style plays with everyone? Plus, as I've written, this race, because of the size and strength of the field, should really disperse the black vote.

Doesn't mean Nutter isn't in an uphill fight. I think he is. But I also think the only color anyone needs to worry about for the next three weeks is green. *

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