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Analysis: Here comes the TV ad war in mayor's race

All is the same. Everything has changed. With seven weeks left in what has been an odd and nearly invisible campaign for Philadelphia's next mayor, the cast of candidates remains constant and the outcome obscure as ever.

All is the same. Everything has changed.

With seven weeks left in what has been an odd and nearly invisible campaign for Philadelphia's next mayor, the cast of candidates remains constant and the outcome obscure as ever.

Calculating a likely winner only became more complicated last week with a court ruling keeping T. Milton Street Sr. on the May 19 Democratic primary ballot. And leading candidates such as State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, and former City Councilman Jim Kenney, in pressing their cases, have unwittingly shown the precarious underpinnings of their campaigns.

Those underpinnings will be sorely tested by a protracted TV ad war between Williams and Kenney that began in earnest Friday.

With two wild cards still in the mix - former Judge Nelson A. Diaz and former mayoral aide Doug Oliver - even the most savvy political observers have been hesitant to place a bet on this one.

"If you ask me today what the status of the race is," said political media strategist Larry Ceisler,whose clients include three Main Line financial traders who are key supporters of Williams. "I would tell you Lynne Abraham is the front-runner, Tony Williams is the favorite, and Jim Kenney has the most room to grow. And Nelson Diaz and Doug Oliver need lightning to strike."

While Street did not figure in Ceisler's analysis, the former state senator could play a significant role, as evidenced by the strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to force him off the ballot last week.

Street, long the clown prince of Philadelphia politics, has no realistic chance of winning - but, having drawn 24 percent of the vote against Mayor Nutter in 2011, he can be counted on to pull some portion of his traditional constituency - voters who are poor, alienated, and African American. Those are votes that otherwise might accrue to Williams, the most prominent African American in this year's race.

"Milton Street is more than a curiosity," said St. Joseph's University professor Randall Miller, a student of local politics. "He is going to get some votes, and those votes would have gone to Williams."

That explains why Street's ballot position was challenged by the treasurer of the Transit Workers Union, Local 234, which has endorsed Williams.

It was a measure of the fragility of Williams' position, despite being the most significant black candidate running in a city with a plurality of black voters.

Williams' mantle of "favorite" is predicated on his receiving near-uniform support in the African American community while Kenney and Abraham splinter the white vote.

There is reason to believe, however, that the color of the candidate has steadily diminished as a factor in citywide elections here. In the 2007 Democratic primary, for instance, Nutter drew significant white support, while two white candidates, Tom Knox and Rep. Bob Brady, attracted a high percentage of black votes.

A 'show poll'

Abraham offered further proof of this pattern last week when she released a campaign poll that showed her ahead in the mayoral race and getting 24 percent of the African American vote. The poll mirrored the results of one Abraham released in November.

The poll's release seemed a classic case of misdirection. Meant to show Abraham's strength, it also could be read as an attempt to mask a weakness - her relative lack of campaign funds or third-party support to match the ad campaigns begun on behalf of Kenney and Williams.

Ceisler called it a "show poll."

"This is a poll for fund-raising and the media," the longtime strategist said. "She has to be able to take this poll to potential donors . . . and say: 'Look, I'm ahead. I can win this election. You need to be with me.' "

Her polling has shown her with broad support across the city. But that is largely seen as a residual effect of her 19 years as district attorney, a tenure that also left her potentially vulnerable to a negative ad campaign.

"I think the Abraham poll sets the benchmark as to where the campaign starts," said Sam Katz, a three-time Republican mayoral candidate who has not yet discounted running in November as an independent. "It has no bearing on where it ends."

Attacks on Abraham can be expected from Kenney, who has the most to lose if her candidacy remains viable. He and she have exchanged considerable sniping, with Kenney last week accusing Abraham of having "overzealously pursued the death penalty" while serving as district attorney.

Kenney's fixation on Abraham has continued even as he benefited from a remarkable run of endorsements from powerful unions, including the AFL-CIO, the firefighters, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and progressive groups such as Philadelphia NOW and elements of the LGBT community.

Kenney has a long record of supporting municipal unions, but amplifying his bona fides as the campaign's "progressive" leader is still an ongoing project. Last week, to that end, he released his plans for an ethical government - a plan laced with references to past collaborations with Nutter despite Kenney's having been, until recently, the mayor's bete noire.

"Here is a guy who for the last three years had been criticizing Michael Nutter up and down," Ceisler said of Kenney. "And, now as a candidate, he needs the Michael Nutter voter. That is a very important part of his coalition."

Despite all of the posturing, endorsements, and weekly forums, the race had remained relatively static - until now.

Ad dollars

The starter's pistol could be heard Friday with word that American Cities, an independent expenditure group, had launched a $560,000 TV ad buy on behalf of Williams.

American Cities is a vehicle largely for three Main Line financial traders - Joel Greenberg, Jeff Yass, and Arthur Dantchik - who backed Williams' unsuccessful 2010 campaign for governor with $5 million. As an outside group not covered by the city's strict campaign donation caps, American Cities is expected to be as generous in helping Williams' mayoral bid.

Kenney has two such independent expenditure groups backing him, one financed in part by Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the other by the American Federation of Teachers.

Both preceded American Cities in the air war.

Whatever it takes

"Things are going to start to happen," Ceisler said. "Any polling out there is irrelevant once the campaigns start on TV. Television moves numbers, moves the voters."

Katz predicted that the closing weeks of the race would be marked by a condensed and intense campaign with consumers bombarded with an onslaught of ads.

"I think Joel, Jeff, and Arthur are going to spend whatever they think they have to for Williams to win - two million, four million, six million - he is going to have what he needs," Katz said. "Collectively, I think the unions will not be able to keep pace. The unions have deep pockets; Joel, Jeff, and Arthur keep their money in vaults."