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A pugilist's sensibilities score a KO

For month after month, politicians ignored the candidacy of Michael Nutter. It was easy to see why. He lagged in the polls. He had little support from labor unions or elected officials. He didn't seem to have a chance.

For month after month, politicians ignored the candidacy of Michael Nutter. It was easy to see why.

He lagged in the polls. He had little support from labor unions or elected officials. He didn't seem to have a chance.

As it turned out, he did have a few valuable assets, among them discipline and patience, hard work and good luck, timely newspaper endorsements and an effective message.

Not to mention a telegenic, 12-year-old daughter.

Put it all together, and it produced a victory that seemed highly unlikely as recently as a few weeks ago.

Despite a productive 14 years on City Council, Nutter's place in the contest was shaky from the outset.

There was skepticism that he would even enter the race, so much so that he felt compelled to resign from Council last June and announce in July - just to show that he was serious.

Even that didn't help. Chaka Fattah already was sounding like a candidate. So was Tom Knox, ready to spend millions on television. Bob Brady, the city Democratic chair, voiced interest as well.

By the start of 2007, the idea that Nutter was just along for the ride became entrenched in the conventional wisdom. He was amassing a big campaign war chest. But he seemed invisible and irrelevant.

The early weeks of March were the toughest. Donors kept asking him if he had any idea what he was doing.

When was he going to start spending the money they'd been giving him? Knox was all over television, as were Brady and Dwight Evans.

Nutter replied that there was no point going on the air until he could do so at a high enough level (a minimum of $300,000 a week) to attract voters' attention - and until he knew he had enough cash to stay on the air through Election Day.

"My father used to take me to boxing matches," Nutter said. "One of the things I learned was, you never fight the other person's fight. You fight your own."

So he waited. And waited. And watched as the political community - the other campaigns included - paid him no mind, even after he hired local political consultant Neil Oxman, who had helped W. Wilson Goode and Ed Rendell become mayor.

Finally, on March 25, a mere 51 days before the voting, Nutter pulled the trigger.

His first ad created a stir by portraying Nutter as the anti-John Street candidate. The second did the same.

"Philadelphia's next mayor must run this city differently than John Street has. Michael Nutter will."

Nutter started to move in the polls almost immediately, gaining support mostly from white voters who disapproved of Street's work as mayor. But the ads did nothing to make the candidate seem warm or likeable.

"People said, 'He's so hard, so uptight, oh, he's so serious, talking about these issues,' " Nutter told a campaign rally last week. "And then along came Olivia."

The idea for a jumpy, fast-moving, MTV-style ad featuring Nutter's daughter was Oxman's, though the commercial was written by his associates J.J. Balaban and Marc Berzenski and shot by Mark Moskowitz.

"It was a way both to humanize Michael and to do some bio on him," Oxman said. "You didn't want it to be silly but you didn't want it too serious, either; you can't have a 12-year-old lecturing on the issues.

"We told Olivia that we'd never put it on the air unless she was totally comfortable with the spot. All credit goes to her; she was great."

It was well into April now, and Nutter had edged into second in the polls. But he still trailed Knox. The other campaigns still weren't taking him seriously; they had problems of their own.

Fattah was hurt by failing to to release his tax returns, Brady by uncertainty over whether he'd be on the ballot, Knox by damaging reports about his business record.

Then came the media endorsements.

Nutter always expected his share. But the worry was that some editorial boards might shy away if he seemed out of the running. The movement in the polls wiped away that fear.

Philadelphia Magazine endorsed him. Then The Inquirer, and the Daily News, the Northeast Times, the City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly.

All of that generated momentum, provided fodder for more ads and brought in more money. Polls showed Nutter making progress with black voters, who had initially found him less than compelling.

On May 1, the campaign received the results of a two-night tracking poll. It showed Nutter 13 points up. Top campaign strategists kept it quiet, worried that the survey, if it got out, would put the target on their man's back. Besides, they weren't sure whether they believed the numbers.

Fattah started taking shots at Nutter in a debate on May 4. In the final days, Knox did, too, as did several independent committees. By then, it was too late.

From the outset, Nutter figured he had one powerful factor working in his favor: that the other campaigns would underestimate him. He couldn't have been more right about that.