A new poll in the Democratic mayoral primary shows former City Councilman Michael Nutter surging into second place, in a statistical dead heat with front-runner Tom Knox.

"Back in December a lot of people were saying they liked Nutter but didn't think he could win," said David Patti, president of Pennsylvanians for Effective Government, which sponsored the survey.

"I think the big news of this poll is that Michael Nutter can win, and if you think he's the best-qualified, you're not throwing away a vote," Patti said.

The survey of 450 likely voters showed Knox in the lead with 20 percent, Nutter with 18 percent, followed by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah with 14 percent, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady with 9 percent and state Rep. Dwight Evans with 7 percent. Thirty-two percent were undecided.

PEG is a pro-business group with a political-action committee that typically supports conservative candidates.

Patti said Knox, who moved into first place with big advertising buys, "seems to have leveled off."

"Knox's negatives went from 12 percent to 21 percent. They nearly doubled, so the way people look at him may have changed," Patti said.

"As the front-runner, he became the person getting all the scrutiny," Patti said, "and it may have been a tactical error to pick the fight with Bob Brady."

Knox supported a challenge to Brady's nominating petitions last month, eventually losing a protracted court battle.

Knox campaign manager Josh Morrow called it "great news" that the poll showed him still in the lead. "Under no circumstances did we think we would walk into the mayor's office," Morrow said. "We knew the race would tighten up."

Another striking result of the poll is the decline of Fattah, who entered the race as the front-runner. PEG surveys show him declining from 29 percent in December, to 17 percent in March, to 14 percent now.

"If all the undecideds break for Fattah he could still be in it," Patti said, "but he's certainly trending in the wrong direction."

Fattah campaign strategist Tom Lindenfeld said the high number of undecided African- Americans shows the race is positioned to break Fattah's way.

"A lot of the black vote is yet to consolidate, and Fattah has the highest standing among African- Americans," Lindenfeld said. "So, I think he's likely to consolidate an enormous amount of support that isn't reflected in the totals."

Patti said Nutter did a good job of fundraising and marshaled his resources well.

"He kept his money until people really started to focus on the race, and his ads are really working well," Patti said. "I think people are warming up to him."

Nutter said last night he's "very pleased" with the poll, but isn't taking anything for granted. "We're going to keep working hard because the big poll is on Election Day," he said. *