A crack in Democratic machine? Chicago's hard-fought mayoral race

For many Chicago TV watchers, last week's lengthy ''Winds of War'' seemed short and even compared with the political ''War for Control of the Windy City'' playing nightly on their screens over the last three months.

Never in this city's history have three such viable candidates campaigned so hard at such expense to net the Democratic mayoral nomination.

In all, $12 million has been raised - over $9 million of it by incumbent Jane Byrne, who is spending $1.5 million on ads alone. The primary, which usually determines the outcome of the April election in this traditionally Democratic city, will be Feb. 22. Each night local newscasts carefully dole out equal time to each candidate's campaign and a blitz of paid political ads routinely punctuates most other programming.

Mayor Byrne, who claims to have rescued the city from near financial chaos, is still generally considered the front-runner. Her own polls give her a lead of at least 12 points over both Richard M. Daley, Cook County prosecutor and son of the late Richard J. Daley, who reigned as mayor here for an uninterrupted 21 years, and US Rep. Harold Washington, who hopes to become the city's first black mayor.

But the Daley camp insists their straw polls now show their candidate in the lead. Mr. Washington is counting heavily on the results of an intensified voter registration effort among the city's 40 percent black population to turn the tide. And no one who saw the near upset of predictions in the November gubernatorial election - Illinois GOP incumbent Jim Thompson barely squeaked by despite a strong lead in the polls - is putting much stock in polls anyway.

Washington stands alone in urging a local tax hike. Both he and Mr. Daley regularly denounce Mayor Byrne's record as one of mismanaged finances and a much too volatile personnel policy. Feisty Mayor Byrne, never one to mince words when attacked, has notably softened her reactions in this campaign. She defuses some of the criticism by admitting she has made mistakes.

The mayor claims that some of the firing of city personnel (she has had four budget directors, four comptrollers, and four police superintendents) was essential to forming a good team. And she insists she has learned from her errors. Her New York news-media adviser, David Sawyer, is credited with much of the observable change.

But in large part the election is being fought over such facts as how much of a deficit did Mayor Byrne inherit, and on the personal question of who can do the best job of turning the city's economy around.

''This is not an election that will be decided on substance or ideology - it's more likely to turn on personalities and history,'' says Louis Masotti, a professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Mr. Daley, whose endorsements now include both major Chicago newspapers, Walter F. Mondale, and former Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, has made considerable headway during the campaign in knocking down an image of inarticulateness.

As University of Illinois political scientist Milton Rakove puts it: ''Richie can talk - he's no intellectual but he speaks Chicago - and I think he's going to win. His campaign is in high gear.''

Still, some argue that Daley has capitalized too much on family connections.

''The family name has brought him where he is, but it can't take him beyond where he is,'' notes Don Rose, a veteran Chicago political consultant and former campaign adviser to Mayor Byrne.

Washington, who drew 11 percent of the vote here in 1977 when he ran for mayor, is widely regarded as benefiting most from the closely followed series of mayoral debates here - both in getting free air time and proving to voters he has a special way with words. His chief problem seems to be the paradox he faces by stressing the race issue.

While necessary on the one hand for his nomination, it has stirred doubts among some voters of his ability to serve as mayor of all Chicagoans. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young has been in town - and more black political leaders will be coming - to stress that whites have nothing to fear in a black political leader.

Whatever the election results, the city's once tightly knit Democratic Party may feel the aftereffects for years.

''I don't think Chicago politics will ever be the same again,'' says Northwestern's Dr. Masotti. ''Instead of a party unified against minor dissidents, there's been a significant tripartite split, and I doubt there will be a detente.''

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