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Tom Ferrick Jr. | Keep an eye on your second choice

So many questions, so little time. With the Democratic primary in Philadelphia a mere nine days away, the Ferrick Commission meets for its final plenary session to ponder the imponderables in the race for mayor.

So many questions, so little time.

With the Democratic primary in Philadelphia a mere nine days away, the Ferrick Commission meets for its final plenary session to ponder the imponderables in the race for mayor.

But first, a reminder of our motto:

Errabundi Saepe, Semper Certi

Often Wrong, But Always Certain.

And most of my expert (but anonymous) political observers were wrong at our meeting last month in counting the redoubtable Michael Nutter down and nearly out.

Some commissioners believed he could stage a late charge, but most thought not. It looks like most were wrong.

That's the bad thing about conventional wisdom. It is so . . . conventional.

Since then, Nutter has made a well-timed surge in the polls, conducted a nifty and effective media campaign (We love your daughter, Mike!) and gotten some important endorsements from the Mainstream Media, a.k.a. The Inquirer and Daily News. Up, up and away!

You couldn't ask for a better time to click, what with Election Day so close. Better than Bob Brady, who seems to have peaked on the day he announced his candidacy.

That said, the majority of commissioners still gives the edge in this race to the estimable Tom Knox (Mr. Money Talks), who sails into the final full week of the campaign still ahead on the polls, with major media buys on the books, and with the promise of spreading lots of cash for field operations on Election Day, which is sure to make hungry committee people happy. (Feeding Time! Come and get it!)

As to the third runner (a word we just invented) it remains, in the commission's estimation, the valiant Chaka Fattah, who can still pull it off - some commissioners believe - if the African American vote consolidates around his candidacy. How likely is that? It depends.

As one commissioner put it last week: "We are 11 days out, and it is still fluid. The candidates have strong appeal, but they don't have broad appeal. You have a segmented market and the biggest segment is still the 'I Don't Knows.' "

Enough of sentences ending in periods, let's get to the question marks.

Can Nutter get more of the black vote? He surely will need more than the 8 to 10 percent he's been getting in the public polls. Will Fattah's field operation save the day for him, reversing what one commissioner calls his "negative momentum." Will Knox's flirtation with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell solidify his black support (now in the high teens) or turn off liberal/white supporters?

But maybe the most important question of all is this one, directed at Democratic voters: Who is your second choice?

If the polls are right, about 75 percent of the electorate has a favorite who is their No. 1 guy. But who is their No. 2 guy?

We ask because we expect this election to be decided by strategic voting.

An example: Folks who love Dwight Evans, but don't think Evans can win. Will they (a) stand by their man; or (b) switcheroo to their second choice? And who might their second choice be? Maybe Fattah and Nutter - the two other African American candidates?

Ditto the Brady voters. If they feel their guy is stuck in the muck and mire, will they switch allegiance to Knox, as the designated Other White Guy in the race?

These are the folks, along with the undecideds, who will decide this campaign.

Philadelphia, you know about strategic voting. It happened in 1999, in the last contested Democratic mayoral primary.

In the final week, public polls showed Marty Weinberg gaining on John Street. Victory seemed within the grasp of the Fumo-backed candidate.

At that moment, a sizable number of Democrats said to themselves: Wait a minute! We can't have Marty Weinberg as mayor. They voted for Street.

After the primary, these same voters immediately switched to Street's Republican opponent as their favorite.

In the absence of a galvanizing issue, with all of the candidates sounding alike on the issues, with the situation fluid as it is, the commission expects an outbreak of such strategic voting this year.

Who will benefit from it? The rough rule of thumb is: Anyone who is No. 2 in the final public polls. He will get most of the advantage as voters switch allegiance from their favorites.

One final note: Watch the weather forecast for May 15. The number of votes cast in 1999 primary totaled 290,000. The commission at first thought the turnout this year would be about the same or higher.

But having so many undecideds late in the game can mean voters simply aren't all that interested or focused. They could sit this one out, lowering turnout. Who does that benefit? The candidate with the most energized and committed base and/or the candidate with the best get-out-the-vote effort.

Who is that? We say Nutter with the base and Fattah with the GOTV apparatus.

But, enough already with the questions. For the answers, we await Election Day.