This year's mayoral campaigns in Chicago and Philadelphia would be crucial even if race were not a factor, as it unfortunately has now become. These are two of the nation's largest and most sophisticated industrial and financial centers - cities which also face long-range challenges of troubled mass transit systems, crime, and poverty. Each also has large ethnic communities, where neighborhoods of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds vie for public funds, jobs, and political spoils.
Thus in each city it is essential that a mayor be elected who can unite and inspire - who has a firm grasp of sound management and consensus government.
This year's contests have sparked more than usual national attention because the candidates now believed to have the best chance of winning are black.
In Philadelphia polls have repeatedly shown the city's former managing director, W. Wilson Goode, to be ahead of former two-term Mayor Frank Rizzo in the Democratic primary in May.
In Chicago, where a Republican has not been elected mayor in 56 years, Democratic Congressman Harold Washington would have to be considered the front-runner against GOP candidate Bernard Epton.
To their credit, all four candidates have publicly disavowed race as a legitimate consideration in the contests. And that is as it should be. It would be as narrow to vote automatically for a candidate because of color as it would be to vote against a candidate because of color.
In the case of Chicago, Mayor Jane Byrne was wise to step back from pursuing a write-in campaign, following her defeat by Mr. Washington in the Democratic primary. Her campaign could only have been an uphill battle.
Further, it could only have been interpreted as appealing to those in Chicago's white ethnic communities who were upset by Mr. Washington's primary victory. By bowing out, Mayor Byrne has left the way open for a clear-cut one-on-one campaign between Mr. Washington and Mr. Epton for the April 12 general election.
Mr. Epton, for his part, will have to convince voters that a conservative (and witty and articulate) Republican can run a city long dominated by an entrenched and powerful Democratic political machine. Mr. Washington (also witty and articulate) has had to explain how he came not to pay income taxes for many years, as well as his suspension from the Illinois bar for failing to carry out responsibilities to his clients.
Each candidate will have to try to convince the citizens of Chicago that he is the one to bring out the best in the city.
Voters, meanwhile, have an equal responsibility to examine the ideas, temperaments, and records of the candidates - not their skin color.
In short, the question to be asked - in Philadelphia and Chicago - is, which person would make the better mayor?