CHICAGO (AP) -- Black ministers, politicians and business leaders are scrambling to unify their community behind one candidate in Chicago's wide-open mayoral race, which already features a former White House chief of staff, as many as four congressmen and a sheriff among those preparing to run.
So many potential candidates have surfaced - at least a dozen in the black community alone - that many fear the black vote could be widely split, ruining a chance to exercise the kind of influence that helped elect Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.
Among other considerations is whether Rahm Emanuel, praised by President Barack Obama even as he left the administration last week to run, will win support from black voters in Obama's hometown.
Facing the best shot in decades to push an agenda - including better solutions to violence, foreclosures and unemployment plaguing underserved black neighborhoods - black clergy, politicians and others have been meeting to try to throw their collective weight behind just one person, hoping the rest of the black community follows their lead.
"It is important to get behind one candidate ... who has a sense of urban reconstruction," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of several community leaders arranging meetings.
But others put less stock in the effort. At least one candidate has expressed impatience with the notion of waiting to be anointed. And there is no guarantee such a coalition can unite a community that is more independent than ever - or persuade other candidates to bow out after making its pick.
Chicago's black community, 35 percent of the city's population, is increasingly diverse and not as tied to racial politics as in the past. Traditional leaders such as clergy and politicians don't hold as much sway as they once did, said Chicago Sun-Times political columnist and DePaul University professor Laura Washington.
"There's no one leader in the African-American community any more ... with the charisma or moral authority to stand up and say 'follow me,' and maybe that's OK," said Washington, who believes there could be three or four black candidates on the ballot in February regardless of whom the coalition chooses.
Political consultant Delmarie Cobb says the heightened interest in running also stems from how long people have waited for the opportunity - Mayor Richard M. Daley won six straight terms before announcing last month he wouldn't seek a seventh. The last black mayor was Eugene Sawyer, who was elected by the City Council and served a mere 17 months after Washington's death in office in 1987.
"I really don't think we will come up with a consensus candidate because egos won't let (the others) step aside," said Cobb, spokeswoman for Jackson's 1988 presidential bid and the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
Several groups considering whom to support plan to come together and try to pick "the best candidate to pay attention" to issues in the black community, said Alderman Walter Burnett, chairman of the City Council's Black Caucus.
Those involved in the meetings among black leaders say their candidate doesn't necessarily have to be black, though it seems likely.
The top vote-getters in a straw poll of about 100 ministers taken Sept. 17 were state Sen. James Meeks, a prominent black minister, and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who also is black, said the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church.
Runners-up included former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., despite recent revelations of an affair and allegations he wanted a group of Indian businessmen to raise millions for ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich in exchange for Jackson's appointment to Obama's old Senate seat.
But nobody is ruling out Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who is white and has made a name for himself with several actions viewed favorably in black communities, including his prosecuting several people in a burial scandal at a historically black cemetery. He came in fifth in the ministers' poll, Acree said.
Acree acknowledged Emanuel could benefit in the black community from his connection to Obama, who once worked as a community activist on the South Side and remains immensely popular there. But the former presidential aide isn't as popular among the city's black leaders, who hope his entry in the race could help unify the community around someone else.
"Our job is to educate (voters) that Rahm is not the second coming of Barack Obama, that what they're thinking is based on irrational logic," Acree said.
A former Daley campaign aide, Emanuel was elected to Congress in 2002 in a district that includes part of Chicago's North Side. But a number of possible mayoral rivals have charged he paid little attention to the city or its problems once he left to work for Obama in Washington.
"Rahm probably has stepped on some toes in the black community, and people are just very wary because of his close association to the mayor and because he's not done much to reach out to the African-American community and make alliances," Laura Washington said.
But others believe he's someone who could get things done for Chicago, Washington said.
"I'm surprised at the number of regular African-American voters, especially older folks, who say they're going to wait and see what he's got to show," she said.
No candidate will get far without being able to raise a lot of money and "show evidence of moving voters to vote" across all races and neighborhoods, the Rev. Jackson said.
That's the only way to survive the February election, which many expect will become a sort of primary. If one candidate does not get more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face each other in an April runoff.