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by Feb 14, 2013 5:15 PM EST

Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel might make a go for 2016, two well-connected Democrats tell Lloyd Grove—as long as Hillary doesn’t. And the potty-mouthed Chicago mayor could win.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is said by well-connected Democrats to be considering the idea of running for president if Hillary Clinton opts out of the 2016 race.

Obama 2012
President Barack Obama, left, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel walk on the tarmac upon the president’s arrival in the Second City in October on Air Force One. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
The 53-year-old Emanuel, who is busy raising money for his 2015 reelection campaign in the Windy City, has had discussions both over the phone and face to face in the past month with Democratic Party donors and fundraisers about a possible White House run, according to sources.It’s unclear who raised the subject—Emanuel or the donors—and the mayor’s press secretary didn’t offer any clarity on who said what to whom. However, Tarah Cooper sent a photo of Emanuel’s scrawl on yellow legal paper vowing “not ever” to run “for another office” and reiterated his longstanding pledge that, in his words, he’s “not interested. Not going to do it. No. I’ll do it in Hebrew: lo.” (Emanuel, the son of an Israeli doctor, had dual citizenship until he was 18.) Others expressed skepticism that any such discussions between Emanuel and donors could have been serious.

“I talk to Rahm almost every single day, sometimes more than once a day, and he’s never said anything like that to me,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a colleague and friend from Bill Clinton’s White House. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

Clinton loyalist James Carville, another friend of the mayor’s, echoed Begala’s dubious assessment: “I never have heard something like that, and it’s not like I don’t talk to Rahm all the time. And it’s not like people close to him ever brought it up.”

Yet rumors of Emanuel’s higher ambitions persist. “I heard there were some conversations with donors especially during the inauguration,” a well-known Democratic politico told The Daily Beast, referring to the January 20-21 celebrations in Washington marking the launch of President Obama’s second term. A second highly placed Democrat echoed that account.

Emanuel—Obama’s former chief of staff, a former member of the House Democratic leadership, and before that a senior staffer in the Clinton White House—maintained a high profile during the inaugural festivities, hosting a well-attended after-party at Washington’s Hamilton Restaurant and generally making a splash.

“He’s never going to kill the buzz,” said a campaign comrade-in-arms, noting that the hard-charging Emanuel is no shrinking violet and has always enjoyed the limelight. He was, after all, a ballet dancer in his youth. “If people were encouraging him to run, he’d like that. But when he came back to Chicago to run for mayor [in late 2010], the plan was not then to run for governor and then run for president. In some ways, he’s a kid in a candy store as mayor.”

Begala argued that for Emanuel, who’d yearned to become Speaker of the House before giving up his congressional seat to work for Obama, being mayor of his hometown is the dream job. “Just being mayor, it’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” Begala said. “It’s certainly the most rewarding job he’s had. He’s really, really, really focused on it.”

Carville, meanwhile, said all signs point to the prohibitive front-runner status of Obama’s first-term secretary of state. “My fervent hope is that Hillary runs,” Carville said. “If I’ve talked to a Democrat who doesn’t want her to run, I can’t remember it. The classic thing to say about presidential elections is that Democrats are looking to fall in love and that Republicans fall in line. This time, it’s the Democrats who are falling in line, and the Republicans are looking for somebody to fall in love with.”

Still, if Clinton decided not to be a candidate in 2016, Emanuel, along with Vice President Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would immediately be a first-tier prospect for the Democratic nomination.

Rahm running for president is not as farfetched as it might sound.”

“If Hillary doesn’t run, the lineup isn’t exactly impressive,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Who do the Democrats have? Cuomo, and a vice president who’s going to be 74 by Inauguration Day. Then there’s Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland? Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana? Kirsten Gillibrand? These are not giants in a forest of redwoods.”

Emanuel, on the other hand, “would be regarded as a very serious candidate,” Sabato said, adding that his political and policy experience from tours in two different White Houses and Congress—especially as chairman and chief strategist of the campaign committee that helped sweep Democrats back into the House majority in 2006—would be difficult for other contenders to match. “Rahm running for president is not as farfetched as it might sound,” Sabato said. “He’s got an impressive résumé.”

Emanuel’s downside, Sabato said, is “he’s voluble”—apparently a euphemism for potty-mouthed—“and he has a long list of enemies. And rightly or wrongly, most people associate Chicago with hardball politics and corruption. Rahm has the image of being very, very partisan. So maybe he’s perfect for a polarized, partisan era.”

Emanuel confidant Bill Daley, President Clinton’s former secretary of commerce and Emanuel’s successor as the Obama White House chief of staff, tried to throw cold water on what he called “bullshit speculation.”

“I’d be surprised if he’d be stupid enough to actually say something like that to people,” said Daley, the son and brother of former Chicago mayors, adding that Emanuel raised $14 million for his last mayoral campaign and “he’s trying to raise enough this time to scare anybody else out of the race.” Although he’s popular and well positioned for reelection in two years, “anything can happen,” Daley said, “and Rahm is as paranoid as ever.”

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.

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