HARRISBURG - While sticking to his promise not to endorse a candidate in the Philadelphia mayor's race, Gov. Rendell said yesterday that State Rep. Dwight Evans was "best qualified to be mayor."

With the May 15 Democratic primary less than two weeks away, Rendell praised all five major Democratic candidates yesterday in a half-hour telephone interview, noting their strong suits in various areas.

But he reserved his most glowing remarks for Evans, who has trailed the others in recent polls.

"On pure merit, he's the best-qualified candidate of all," Rendell told The Inquirer. "He has the best experience, the best background, the best understanding of the issues."

A Democrat who still votes in the city from his East Falls address, the governor even ventured to say: "I might vote for Dwight."

But Rendell - whose own gifts as a communicator became legendary during his eight years as mayor - said Evans' potentially fatal drawback was that he had failed to communicate his strengths to voters.

"It's a campaign failing," Rendell said, "but it could be a failing as mayor, because the most important thing you can do is communicate to constituents to sell a plan and persuade them that it's something worth sacrificing for."

As ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Evans has helped usher through major pieces of legislation for Rendell, including increases in education funding and economic development. Now, as Appropriations Committee chairman, Evans plays an even larger role in the governor's agenda - which Rendell acknowledged by remarking that he would love to keep Evans in Harrisburg.

Despite months of pressure from many quarters, Rendell has steadily declined to publicly endorse a candidate. But he said he had urged each of them to feel free to cite any work they have done with him in their campaign pitches.

"It is impossible for me to endorse someone," he said. "I have strong personal relationships with all five."

Here's how Rendell handicapped the rest of the field:

Tom Knox. Business acumen is his strong suit, said Rendell, who employed Knox as $1-a-year deputy mayor for management and productivity in 1992 and 1993 - which Knox touts in countless campaign ads. "One of the immediate challenges is to get the city's finances under control; no one is better than Tom."

The downside: "His abrasiveness." "In the political process you have to suffer fools and bite your lip. I question whether he can achieve that."

Rendell estimated that Knox had also raised and donated as much as $1 million to Rendell's campaigns.

Michael Nutter. "A true visionary and a creative thinker." "He is willing to be independent and take a difficult stand."

The downside: No executive experience - and might run into the same difficulty Rendell foresees for Knox. Rendell said he and his then-chief of staff, David L. Cohen, found Nutter difficult to work with as a city councilman when Rendell was mayor.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. "He has as much passion for the most vulnerable in the city as anyone." "He has done wonderfully creative stuff on education." He could use his Washington relationships to benefit Philadelphia if a Democrat wins the White House in 2008. The downside: No executive experience. "He has not run a sterling campaign. . . . It raises questions whether he could attract high-caliber talent for the city."

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady. "He is the best of the breed of old-time politicians who uses his ability to move people for positive results." His strong interpersonal skills would help in dealing with City Council. He could use his Washington experience if the next president is a Democrat.

Downside: "Is he committed to making political changes they need to get out of a crisis? Who knows? Does he have the interest in long-term, more complex issues? Who knows?"

Rendell's endorsement was critical to Mayor Street's narrow victory in 1999, but he said he generally refrains from endorsing candidates.

However, he is weighing in on the City Council and judicial races, saying yesterday that he had endorsed Latino activist Maria Quinones Sanchez for City Council. He also has endorsed Philadelphia Common Pleas Court's president judge, C. Darnell Jones, for the state Supreme Court.

During the hard-fought mayoral campaign, Rendell has taken pains not to cross his personal non-endorsement line.

As recently as yesterday, his former spokeswoman, Kate Philips, who is now the spokeswoman for Brady's campaign, called Rendell's office to ask him to sign off on comments she had prepared for the governor for use in a forthcoming Brady ad.

Rendell changed the prepared remarks before approving them, his spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said.

"He modified them so there would be no misunderstanding as to whether it was a statement of support, which it was, but not an endorsement," Ardo said. "The governor is trying to be very careful to be accurate in the remarks he makes about all the candidates and he doesn't want to have a misplaced word misread."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani contributed to this article.