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Out-of-town treks raise mayor's national profile, but who's reaping the benefits?

Hobnobbing in Chicago with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Speechifying in Louisville, Ky., and Cambridge, Mass. Perching in front-row seats for announcements from President Obama.

Hobnobbing in Chicago with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Speechifying in Louisville, Ky., and Cambridge, Mass. Perching in front-row seats for announcements from President Obama.

Since taking office, Mayor Nutter has maintained an active out-of-town schedule that must seem like a walk in the park compared to the grim budget briefings and union negotiations he deals with at home.

"I think he's a very good salesman for the city," said political consultant Larry Ceisler. "One of his jobs is to bring business, bring tourists and bring government dollars to this city. One of the ways you do that is by going outside the city."

Ceisler added: "It has to be a relief to be able to leave town, talk about urban policy, talk about the potential of Philadelphia and not have somebody ask you about property taxes and whether their library will stay open."

In recent months, Nutter has jetted to Chicago for a conference hosted by Mayor Richard M. Daley and to Washington to attend a green-jobs conference.

Yesterday, Nutter headed to Oklahoma City for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he'll participate on panels about green jobs and vacant-land use. He'll be out there through Monday.

"The mayor has to be the face and the voice and the persona of the city," Nutter said, noting the national recognition given to big- city mayors like Daley or Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City. "There's a reason for that. They're helping to raise the profile of their cities."

Nutter says these trips boost Philly's profile and often help attract federal dollars for city projects. But his travels undoubtedly also bolster his political future too - although he must be careful not to neglect any city duties while he's on the road.

"Any CEO has to decide where he spends his time and when it's really just time to focus on internal matters," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group. "No matter how good an image he ends up having on the road, if he has big fights in town that's going to hurt him."

Since his election, Nutter has positioned himself as a leading voice on urban policy and the fiscal needs of cities.

"He's a very forceful mayor and has very strong opinions. He's also a policy mayor," said Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "[Former Mayor Ed] Rendell played this role in the past. In some respects, the national role is as critical as the local role in terms of changing policies that can have a local effect."

Nutter has been lobbying Washington for greater support for cities for several years. While those efforts did not translate into significant funding for cities in the $787 billion economic-stimulus package, Katz said it has positioned Philadelphia well for the future.

"There's going to be an infrastructure bill in the next two or three years in Washington. There's going to be a major energy bill," said Katz. "I think we live in a world where, in terms of federal policy, cities and metro areas that are ahead of the curve can benefit disproportionately."

Philly has enjoyed numerous visits from Obama's Cabinet - as well as a number of substantial federal grants, recently winning a $25 million energy grant to retrofit buildings.

"More people paying attention to Philadelphia is a good thing," Nutter said. "Being on a panel with Rahm Emanuel is a good thing, too. I have his phone number. He takes my calls."

But how does the out-of-town politicking impact Nutter's work in the city?

Nutter - who has struggled with declining revenues, unresolved union contracts and public criticism of his leadership style - may be more popular away than at home. He just lost a major battle with City Council, which refused to act on his proposed soft-drink tax to help balance the budget.

Still, Nutter said his mayoral duties trump all else. He said that most of his trips are brief and that he doesn't always accept invitations when there's pressing work at home.

"[President Obama] has invited me to a ton of events," Nutter said. "Unfortunately, there have been a number of times when I just couldn't go. I know the prez understands your main job is what you do in your primary job."

Of course, these travels definitely don't hurt Nutter's political future. Rendell benefited from national attention and press, winning the job of Democratic National Committee chairman after he left the mayor's office.

"Anybody who's in this business wants to raise their public profile and has an ego," said Ceisler. "Whether it's higher political office, whether it's a potential Cabinet position down the line in a Democratic administration, there are benefits, and I think he sees that."

Stalberg noted: "It's impossible to distinguish between the benefit to him and the benefit to the city."

But the first-term Nutter is coy about what he may do next.

"People will always speculate about that. I have no idea what my future is. It's not something that I think about," Nutter said. "I'm very focused on doing a good job being mayor."