Washington (CNN)Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's challenger, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, will spend Tuesday night's debate looking to convince voters that Emanuel's been bad for Chicago.
Rahm Emanuel aims to defend lead in final mayoral debate
But it's still an open question whether he can convince them that he'd be any better.
That's the challenge that remains for Garcia in the final days before the April 7 runoff, a contest that's pitted the challenger's populist optimism against Emanuel's gruff realism as the city grapples with mounting fiscal woes.
Public polls have shown Emanuel opening a clear lead on Garcia, with a survey out this weekend putting the mayor ahead by nearly 17 points. But the timing — during Spring break, where students will be home and teachers, who are actively backing Garcia, will be turning out the vote for him — and the historic nature of the runoff still have Emanuel's team nervous.
Emanuel's biggest obstacle in the race has been his personality. The notoriously prickly former Obama chief of staff is known for shouting and swearing at those he opposes, and stories of his take-no-prisoners style of politics are abundant.
That, coupled with frustration from the city's African-American community and teachers following his closure of more than 50 of Chicago's worst-performing schools sent him into a runoff with Garcia after he failed to top 50% support during the first round of voting in February.
The mayor has tried to improve his image, admitting in an ad he can "rub people the wrong way" and quite literally kissing babies on the campaign trail this weekend. He's also brought in reinforcements with some help from his former employer: President Barack Obama, who cut a radio ad for the campaign, appeared with him on the stump and voted early for the mayor's reelection on Monday.
But advisers and allies believe his best argument for voters remains his record of getting things done, so Emanuel has looked to crystallize the choice for Chicagoans as one between a tough but effective problem-solver and a guy with a friendly smile but murky solutions to the city's financial woes.
Last week the campaign released an attack ad hitting Garcia's management of a community-development nonprofit.
"In his one executive position, Chuy mismanaged a small budget. So how would he handle Chicago's?" a narrator asks in the ad.
Paul Green, director of the Institute of Politics at Chicago's Roosevelt University, said Emanuel's goal was to convince voters that he's the only guy for the challenge as big as Chicago's financial woes.
"He's trying to show that, who is the best person to deal with this incredible financial mess? Who can best negotiate and deal with unions and deal with the governor?" he said. "That's going to become more and more an issue in the last week, especially if Emanuel has his way."
Garcia is no stranger to Chicago's and Illinois' financial issues — he's served in the Illinois Senate, as an alderman and currently as a Cook County commissioner. And he's sought to counter Emanuel's attacks by elaborating on his plans for the city's finances, releasing an 18-page financial plan that he references often on the campaign trail. He also promises to appoint a panel of experts after he's elected to help him collaboratively craft policies to cure the city's financial woes.
But his challenge was clear during his appearance in front of the City Club of Chicago, who is also hosting Tuesday's debate, on Monday.
In response to a question from the crowd on how he'd pay for the new police officers and school programs he's proposed while still tackling the city's pension deficit, Garcia said he would work "collaboratively with the city's four sister agencies ... to engage in shared savings" by "eliminating duplication," but offered few details.
Garcia said he would find the money to reopen a number of clinics Emanuel closed by "reducing the number of bureaucrats" in the city's health department, adding that "the rest of it will come from additional efficiencies in government."
"The mayor promised when he ran for the office four years ago to put the city's fiscal house in order. It is not in order," Garcia said. "We are in a financial free-fall, the downgrades of Chicago public school bonding three weeks ago ... is an indication of the poor stewardship of the city's finances. We can, and I will, do better."
But the audience never heard how, as the event ended there.