LET'S GET ONE THING straight: This city ain't broken.

Granted, we've been counting too many bodies lately, as well as too many lost jobs and too many disconnected young people dropping out of school.

But we can also count the construction cranes around the city - recently completing the dazzling Cira Center, and now building the Comcast Tower. We can count new places of delight - a restaurant at the Waterworks, a trail alongside the Schuylkill and new energy at Progress Plaza.

We can count grassy green lots in neighborhoods that were once blighted, commercial developments in neighborhoods once overlooked. Places like Point Breeze, Brewerytown, Northern Liberties, West Poplar and Mill Creek are becoming sought-after. We can count more dollars coming from Harrisburg into the schools, and higher test scores from the students in them.

We are counting. When people talk about Philadelphia, they talk about a city on the verge - not of bankruptcy, but of greatness.

That's why the next few years matter so much.

That's why we endorse Michael Nutter for mayor.

Nutter has the intelligence, the vision and the experience necessary to take this city into its rightful future, and to rewrite the old "corrupt and content" story of machine politics, insider deals and "pay-to-play."

He started rewriting that story on Council. He was among the first to adopt the reform mantle by realizing how the city's crushing tax burden strangles economic and job growth. He pushed for the creation of the Tax Reform Commission, and rode herd on reducing wage and business taxes.

The fight for tax reform presaged the same kind of fight he'd have over ethics reform. Nutter was first responder to a string of City Hall pay-to-play indictments, introducing a series of bills that reformed campaign finance and contracts, and created an ethics board that has teeth. His doggedness and determination to wear down an indifferent Council that declared itself "ethic'd out" ultimately prevailed.

His track record and tenacity on the ethics issue shows a leader with smarts and integrity.

As 4th District councilman for nearly 15 years, he ably oversaw a diverse district, delivering ground-level constituent services and big projects.

'A smart guy'

That's usually the first thing people say about Nutter. He is intelligent enough to grasp the big picture, and wonky enough to nail the small details. His depth of questioning on budget matters has been sorely absent during this past Council session.

Besides being the candidate most familiar with the city budget, he does his homework. He's the only candidate who has costed-out his proposals, and figured out how to fund them. His willingness to hold them up for inspection is an indication of how open a Nutter administration might be. Some people chafe at his charts-and-graphs mentality, but we believe this shows a necessary grasp of complexity and reality.

You can scratch the surface of any of his proposals and see the depth of what's underneath. That's not true of other candidates' proposals.

On the issues

Nutter has sound plans for the key challenges facing the city.

On safety, he has expressed the kind of urgency that the current homicide rates demand. And while we remain conflicted about his call for "stop and frisk," we give him thumbs-up for being bold in confronting the problem and developing a timetable for results.

He says he will lead the fight on changing the state's school-funding formula. He is the only candidate with a child in the public schools.

His plan for economic opportunity is rightly directed at those who need it most. Much of his strategy focuses on minority participation, and he calls for trade unions' doing work with the city to triple the number of minority and female apprentices within three years. That kind of straight talk and goal-setting is overdue, especially after the shame of MBEC.

HE GETS IT.

More than any other candidate, Nutter grasps where this city is: As illuminated in the recent "Tale of Two Cities" report, Nutter recognizes both: the gains the city has made on the hipness scale, as well as the crushing poverty of so many of its citizens.

The city that has seen crazy spikes in real-estate values is the same city that has a worrisome foreclosure rate. The city that cleaned up nicely enough for Olympic contention is the same city with too many neighborhoods' being ravaged by gun violence. This old city of entrenched neighborhoods has a new base of young, engaged and digitally linked citizens.

Michael Nutter is the best candidate to create the bridge between these two realities, and integrate them into one great city.

This election has offered some extremely strong candidates. Dwight Evans is smart, dedicated to public service and the city, and unafraid of new ideas. This city needs him in Harrisburg, where his ability to pull people together continues to be critical.

Chaka Fattah holds a key place in a Democrat-controlled Congress, and with the possibility of a Democratic president, his value to the city in Washington could be immeasurable.

Bob Brady is charming and savvy, and part of his charm is his belief that the city should be content to let him take care of its problems based on his ability to find money. Brady will serve us well in Congress, where he's rising in the ranks.

Tom Knox believes he's qualified to run the city because he's run some businesses - in his words, "running things is running things." This shows a stunning lack of awareness of government for and by the people. His recent pairing with ultimate insider Jannie Blackwell shows he's clearly not as high above the fray as he advertises. *