It was Al Gore, then vice president, who gave Ed Rendell the nickname that still endures: "America's Mayor."

Even after eight years in Harrisburg, Rendell is best remembered in these parts for the eight energetic years he spent as mayor of Philadelphia, from 1992 through 1999.

"It was a time when Philadelphia could have slid off the face of the earth," Comcast executive David L. Cohen says. "The general attitude was that we had a lot more chance of becoming like Detroit or Newark than we had of becoming like New York or Chicago or Boston - some of the big vibrant cities."

To be sure, Cohen is a biased source - but he was there. He was Mayor Rendell's organizational brain, his confidant, his workaholic chief of staff.

"I think that however his entire career is viewed," Cohen says, "his greatest accomplishments will be as the mayor of the city of Philadelphia, because it was a time when the city could have gone either way."

The city's affection was evident when Rendell ran for his first term as governor in 2002. It gave him 84 percent of its votes. He did nearly as well in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he was seen as having revitalized Center City as a safe, clean place for entertainment and eating out.

Indeed, Rendell ran for governor on his record as mayor: Taking a city from bankruptcy's brink to a $300 million budget surplus (albeit aided by boom times). Getting municipal unions to accept concessions (albeit after a one-day strike). Stemming job loss. Adding nearly 1,000 police officers. Shaving the wage tax. Adding all-day kindergarten in public schools.

Sam Katz, the unsuccessful Republican candidate to succeed him in 1999, points to the infrastructure his friend Rendell built to reinvent the city as an arts-and-culture destination and to capitalize on its history and its madness for sports.

Rendell used tax incentives and his larger-than-life personality to cajole hospitality-industry executives into thinking of his beleaguered city as what he loved to call "a world-class destination."

He made an alliance with President Bill Clinton, a kindred spirit and fellow Democrat, who steered hundreds of millions of dollars for urban regeneration into the city.

Maybe Rendell didn't reverse neighborhood decline. Maybe he didn't do as much as he might have, in the end, to lift the lagging schools.

But he brought people and jobs to Center City. The Avenue of the Arts, the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center, the Independence Visitor Center. A phalanx of luxury hotels, including the Loews and the Sofitel. The political backing for what would become new ballparks for the Eagles and Phillies.

"These are lasting legacies that, physically, are irrefutable," Katz says.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a Democrat, says Rendell's greatest mayoral legacy is what Butkovitz calls "the engine of growth": Center City. "His idea was that Center City is kind of the face of the city," Butkovitz says. "It is the brand. You needed to lead with that."

Rendell also made losing bets. He pushed for riverboat gambling. He backed the ill-starred DisneyQuest project on Market Street East.

A longtime ally, State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), says Rendell "raised the bar on what it means to be mayor" - but had to be shoved hard by Evans and others to address a soaring homicide rate in the early 1990s. The shoving led Rendell to hire John Timoney, who as police commissioner made major inroads in street crime. As Evans says, "It turned out to be a blessing for Rendell."

Was he a better mayor than governor?

"You can't compare the two," former City Controller Jonathan A. Saidel says. "When you are mayor of Philadelphia, you can make a decision at 9 o'clock in the morning and test its impact by noon - and change it by 1 o'clock."

City Council President John F. Street protected Rendell's flank from an oft-rebellious Council. Rendell had Clinton's help from Washington. He had local media that hung on his every word.

Though a native New Yorker, he knew the territory from his years as Philadelphia district attorney. In that post, he was generally praised for being tough on street crime and sensitive to victims of rape and domestic violence.

He also prosecuted 27 cases of police brutality - more than any predecessor. One case was against three officers in the 1978 kicking and stomping of Delbert Africa, a member of the MOVE cult. A judge acquitted them, but not before 500 off-duty officers marched on the District Attorney's Office, chanting, "Delbert Rendell."

But it was not as district attorney or as governor that Rendell made his greatest mark in 24 years in elective office, says Larry Ceisler, a veteran political consultant in Philadelphia. It was as America's Mayor.

"By sheer force of will, he changed our economy from one that was relying on a decaying industrial base to one that was hospitality- and tourism- and service-based," Ceisler says.

"After everything - after his eight years as governor - I will always think of him as a mayor. I think that was the best job for him. He just fit being a big-city mayor."