CHICAGO – Minutes after finding out that Illinois' highest court had put him back in the race for Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel was at a downtown transit station, shaking hands and talking about a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama.
The scene after the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday in Emanuel's favor served as a reminder that he was still the frontrunner. He had barely broken stride during the three days his campaign was in doubt after a lower court threw the former White House chief of staff off the ballot because he had not lived in Chicago for a full year before the Feb. 22 election. Emanuel is still far ahead in the polls, millions of dollars ahead in fundraising, and again reminding voters of his friends in the highest of places — even as he tries to win votes in train stations and bowling alleys.
"The good news is now that we have the Supreme Court decision, it's behind us," he said a short time later during a debate with other candidates. "Hopefully this will be the last question about it for all of us, including myself."
As the next phase of the campaign began with Emanuel and his three top rivals talking street-level issues at the debate, the big question is what effect the legal dispute has had on the race: Did it garner Emanuel sympathy from voters in a campaign where he has had to fight claims that he's not a "real Chicagoan" or were the other contenders able to attract some notice from voters who thought Emanuel wouldn't make the ballot?
Legally, it appears that Emanuel's residency problems are over. In their ruling, a majority of the justices concluded the earlier decision was "without any foundation" in the law because it said a candidate must be physically present in Chicago. Emanuel lived for nearly two years in Washington working for Obama. He moved back to Chicago in October, after Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he would not seek a seventh term.
The lawyer at the center of the challenge, Burt Odelson, said as far as he was concerned, the issue is dead and can't be appealed through the federal courts.
Talk quickly turned back to what it was before the appeals court ruling that tossed Emanuel from the race — whether he will win enough votes on Feb. 22 to avoid a runoff. A recent poll showed Emanuel just a few percentage points away from the 50 percent of the votes plus one vote he needs to win the seat outright.
Don Rose, a longtime analyst of Chicago politics, said the legal saga would bring Emanuel "even greater sympathy" and could lift him to victory.
"It's over," Rose said. "The only open question is whether he wins it in the first round or whether there's a runoff."
Another analyst agreed that Emanuel got a "good bit of sympathy" over the ballot fight but wasn't so sure he would coast to victory.
"It's going to be very turbulent in the next week or two," said Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist and former alderman, who said he thinks the other candidates picked up some support in the last week. "A number of voters will reconsider" and the remaining debates will be important.
Throughout the last few days, voters had expressed frustration at the appeals court's ruling, saying they, not a court, should be deciding who would be the next mayor.
"They didn't have a right to do what they did to him," said Marilyn Scott, a 62-year-old grandmother of seven who planned on sitting the election out if Emanuel's name wasn't on the ballot. "It's not about sympathy, it's about being right and it's about being fair."
The former White House aide has said he always intended to return to Chicago, and his arguments were accepted by the city election board and a Cook County judge before the appeals court rejected them.
In their decision, the Supreme Court justices left no doubt that they thought Emanuel had been wronged by the appellate court. The high court called the lower court's basis for deciding that Emanuel could not be on the ballot "without any foundation in Illinois law."
The court also added to Emanuel's narrative that only the call from the president could have persuaded him to move out of Chicago and quit his job representing the city's North Side in Congress, saying that Emanuel "took an inherently temporary position of national service."
Former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who has tried to portray Emanuel as an outsider, said she didn't question the court's decision.
"The court's ruling stands and the fact is that the field hasn't changed we're all still in this and we're all trying to get our message out," she said.
Another opponent, City Clerk Miguel del Valle said he was relieved that the "distraction" of the residency fight was behind them, saying he was "glad we're there, finally, even though there's only four weeks left."
Gery Chico, the city's former school board president and one of Emanuel's more prominent rivals, has complained that the recent "drama" surrounding Emanuel had "made this election into a circus instead of a serious debate about the future of Chicago." He expressed hope that the campaign could now move on to the issues: crime, education and the city's budget woes.
"Game on," he said.
Associated Press writers Michael Tarm, Tammy Weber, Sophia Tareen and Karen Hawkins contributed to this report.