On his third anniversary as king of Chicago, who would Mayor Rahm Emanuel choose as his opponent in the upcoming mayoral election?
He'd want someone easy, some punchy Democratic regular white-ethnic, a guy with baggage, who wouldn't push too hard and would go down easy. Or he might rather face an underfunded black storefront reverend, a man full of public rage, so loud and ostentatiously angry that Rahm would sparkle as the cool voice of reason.
Yes, it's showbiz, and as theatrical as the phony eight-part CNN documentary "Chicagoland" that a producer promised would make Rahm a star.
But Rahm's star has dimmed, and with the mayoral election in February rushing up at him, he's got real problems, both administrative and political. The city's broke, the schools all but bankrupt and gang violence makes headlines.
Chicago doesn't much like him anymore. He has time to change that, but his poll numbers, particularly among African-Americans who helped elect him in 2011, are abysmal. What's stunning is that for all his skills as a behind-the-scenes media manager, his people failed spectacularly in trying to dirty up a gawky former alderman from Hyde Park-Kenwood.
Rahm doesn't want that tweedy woman, the one with the "good government" public persona, the woman who doesn't laugh easily or slap backs. Yeah, you know the one, she of the sensible shoes:
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Doesn't he seem like he's goading her into it? His chief campaign consultant, John Kupper, sent an email to Tribune reporters this week suggesting hit-piece themes against Preckwinkle. But instead of picking up Kupper's dimes, the Tribune wrote about the tactic. That made her the victim, and Operation Tarnish Toni blew up in Rahm's face.
On Thursday, I asked Preckwinkle's political adviser Ken Snyder about the hit-piece gambit that failed.
"She wasn't all that surprised or outraged," Snyder said. "She's been up against this kind of machine tactic before. But she hasn't focused on her political future. She said she had a job to do as president of the Cook County Board and she's doing it."
That's the company line and they're sticking to it. And why shouldn't they? It gives Preckwinkle some time to wait for the call that's coming, if it hasn't come already.
It's that call from a political friend that tells her all she has to do is wait, and let Rahm win re-election, and next time it will be her turn, and she'll have access to Rahm's Wilmette big-bucks society, and Chicago will remain stable and calm.
Of course, that's all speculation. I don't know of any such calls. But I have been watching this game for some time, and other calls like it have been made in Chicago politics.
"If she gets a call like that, it would likely backfire," Snyder said.
What's obvious is that Emanuel perceives her as a real threat, so much so that his camp would risk a clumsy takedown.
By hovering just at the edge of candidacy, with Emanuel sinking somewhat, Preckwinkle hasn't been subject to much scrutiny. So far it's been about the idea of Preckwinkle in the abstract, rather than Preckwinkle as a candidate.
If voters know her, they think "good government." By and large she won that reputation through years of battle in the Chicago City Council. But she's not some kindly school librarian — she's a politician.
Most of the candidates she backed in the March election lost. Whether she's merely a name without an organization is still an open question.
Another problem: "Good government" Preckwinkle has a working relationship with Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who doubles as the Cook County Democratic chairman. Berrios is a creature of Illinois House Speaker and boss Mike Madigan. Berrios wrongly fired 11 county workers, slapped his own relatives in those spots, and Preckwinkle's government was forced to pay out $529,000 in reparations.
President Sensible Shoes then endorsed Berrios' daughter in a hotly contested state representative race ultimately won by Northwest Side progressive Will Guzzardi. He was all warm and fuzzy about Preckwinkle on Thursday.