The counter guys at Dunkin' Donuts wanted a picture with the candidate. Women oohed and aahed, angled for hugs. "You look great, just like on TV!" one said. James H. Brown blocked his way.

"Can I shake the hand of the next mayor?" asked Brown, a factory worker from Frankford.

Michael Nutter obliged.

Every step the former city councilman took in the Gallery mall Thursday afternoon brought more confirmation of his new status as the man with momentum in the Philadelphia mayor's race.

In recent days, Nutter reeled off a string of news-media endorsements, his TV ads gained traction, and the latest polls suggested that as the campaign enters its final stretch, voters have started to winnow down the five-man Democratic field in the May 15 primary to a contest between Nutter and Knox.

Tom Knox, that is - the wealthy businessman who has led the polls for weeks on the strength of his corruption-busting message, and the $6 million-and-counting he has spent on TV ads.

The week ended with supporters of U.S. Reps. Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah fretting, and State Rep. Dwight Evans bristling at reporters' questions about whether he planned to withdraw. One of the city's political power brokers was even quoted as musing that it might be time to unite behind Nutter - to stop Knox.

Another sign of Nutter's surge: When he does his daily round of fund-raising calls, more phones get answered. "I'm finding a lot more people are in their offices these days," he said. The proof was in the campaign reports: On just Tuesday and Wednesday, Nutter raked in $107,525, outstripping his rivals.

Still another sign: Fattah took shots at him during a live debate Friday night on 6ABC. Noting that Nutter has been a champion of tax cuts and ethics legislation, Fattah asked, "Where is his passion for those who are homeless, who are jobless?"

Nutter described the encounter as "a WWF smackdown."

Political strategists credit Nutter with raising money in a disciplined way, then waiting till just the right moment to launch his television campaign. They say his ads helped establish a base among educated white voters who want change by setting Nutter up as the antithesis of Mayor Street. As he has gained momentum, they say, Nutter's appeal has broadened.

"Nutter is running like Secretariat," consultant Saul Shorr said. "It's been a brilliant strategy."

Which has prompted Knox to strike back. He doubled down on his TV ads, buying about $740,000 worth of time through this Tuesday, pushing him to $1.2 million since April 23 and as much as $6 million overall. The self-styled outsider also took a gamble, cementing an alliance with an insider: Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who has defended nepotism and voted against the city campaign-finance limits that Nutter and others championed.

The Blackwell move may have undercut Knox's outsider image for a news cycle or two, but he could gain troops on Election Day in the West Philadelphia neighborhoods where Blackwell's organization is strong, helping Knox capitalize on what polls show is a healthy share of black support.

A white candidate, Knox has shown appeal among blacks in a year when experts say the city isn't entirely sticking with its habit of voting on racial lines.

Quincy Scott of Southwest Philadelphia said he'd vote for Knox. "He's not about one community. He's about the whole city," said Scott, who is African American. "We need a change, somebody with some leadership who can get it done."

After Knox's Wednesday news conference with Blackwell, a throng of middle-age men queued up to introduce themselves. Knox shook their hands one after another, a smile fixed on his face.

Knox in recent weeks has been attracting more well-wishers at campaign events.

On another front, Knox pushed back against an independent "527" group seeking to run an ad attacking his business record. The three top-rated broadcast stations declined to air it - after Knox's lawyer threatened to sue.

And Knox still worried State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, the Democrat said to be most responsible for persuading Brady to run. Fumo broached the subject in Harrisburg last week, two other legislators said.

"In essence, Fumo said, 'Should we consider coalescing around Nutter?' " recalled Sen. Anthony Williams, who is backing Evans. "I didn't take it to be any major push. He did say, 'Well, we can talk about it later.' " Fumo declined to be interviewed for this article.

Williams described the conversation with Fumo as "informal" and "loosey-goosey," adding that he did not believe the veteran legislator was suggesting Brady should drop out. Williams said Evans, too, was in the race "to the end."

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, an ally of Fattah's, agreed that Fumo's talk had been "casual." Hughes, among others, said many city politicos were anxious at the prospect of a Knox administration.

"It's really a disconcerting thing when you have four people who have given their lives to public service, and this guy comes in as the front-runner using the power of his purse," Hughes said. "Everybody is kind of frustrated about that."

Gov. Rendell, a popular former mayor, told The Inquirer last week that Evans was the "most qualified" of the candidates. But Evans has lagged in polls, and at an event celebrating his endorsement by most of the city's Harrisburg delegation, reporters asked: Are you dropping out?

"No, no, no," Evans said. "I come from people with a lot of grit. Quitting is not in my vocabulary."

With nine days to go, here are some other scenes from the mayoral primary campaign:

40th and Market Streets. Late Thursday, a podium with a Fattah sign waited under a tree, and two sound trucks piped in cheers and a message: "Chaka Fattah is running for mayor of our city. His campaign is in your neighborhood." The only thing missing was a crowd.

When Fattah showed up about 5:40 p.m., he noticed there was no audience, and jogged across the street to homebound commuters streaming off buses and the El.

He bent to greet children and chatted with grown-ups one on one. A woman promised to vote for him after hearing that he wants more after-school programs.

"He will bring a change to the city," said Andre Pittman, 39, of Southwest Philadelphia. "I like the way he talks. This violence needs to be shut down."

Fattah said he was not worried despite falling back a bit after early polls made him the favorite. "It's a buildup to a breakthrough," he said.

One veteran campaigner, Street, said last week that it took a half-million dollars to turn out one's voters. Fattah doesn't have such a sum, but he is counting on his well-honed army and its ability to coax out the large bloc of as-yet undecided African American voters.

8826 Frankford Ave. On Monday, Brady was eating lunch with supporters in the Dining Car restaurant - undisturbed. He already had worked the room; now, no one interrupted his meal to slap his back or ask a question.

Aside from a detour to Washington for congressional business, Brady mostly made stops last week in the Northeast, accepting the endorsement of the school police officers union, touring a mental-health agency, and speaking to community groups. The Northeast, home of the largest expanse of white voters in the city, will be his target in the last week.

The chairman of the city Democrats, a man known for making peace in labor and political disputes, Brady has had the misfortune to be the most identifiable insider in a year when most voters say they want change.

"There are all kinds of polls out there, but . . . if I get the support of the people I've been helping all my life, I'll win," Brady said Thursday night at a meeting of the residents of the Delaire Landing complex.

Later, at a motorcycle show in the parking lot of Chickie's & Pete's on the Boulevard, he was greeted as a conquering hero. White guys in denim vests and leather surrounded him, giving him soul-brother handshakes and back pats. "Please, get elected. We need you," one man pleaded.

Brady laughed about a custom bike he once built ("the only shocks were the air in the tires") and posed atop some of the prizewinning bikes.

"You know who he reminds me of? Frank Rizzo," Virgil Flores said. "He's a strong leader. He's straight-up."

Sue Beck of Torresdale said she had changed her registration from Republican to Democrat to vote for Brady in the primary. "I just trust my instinct. He's a stand-up guy," she said.

Baltimore Avenue. As Nutter walked a business strip between 45th and 48th Streets on Wednesday night, cars began honking at him, drivers rolling down their windows to yell support. People demanded photographs. One man missed his trolley to meet the candidate.

Nutter strolled inside Abby's Desert Lounge at 47th Street. After he posed with everyone in the joint, the woman behind the bar made him an offer.

"Y'all want a drink?"

Nutter laughed and replied: "We're working."

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writers Andrew Maykuth and Jennifer Lin contributed to this article.