What kind of politician would be so suicidal as to challenge Mayor Greg Nickels, who has managed to coax labor, environmentalists, and, to a surprising extent, the business establishment, into his pocket? Predictably, 18 months before the 2005 election, no one is ready to come out and declare open warfare on the mayor's pro-density, anti-process, jobs-jobs-jobs agenda, but a few prospective candidates are already giving the city's top job a closer look.

City Council Member Nick Licata, whose strong base of community activists could help him mount a formidable campaign against neighborhood bad-guy Nickels, tops the list of potential challengers. And Jim Diers, the former Department of Neighborhoods head who was axed by Nickels in 2001, says he's "thinking about" a bid. Meanwhile, former city council member Martha Choe, whose name frequently pops up on the list of potential candidates, says adamantly, "I'm not running."

Neighborhood activists, alienated by Nickels' heavy-handed development plans and frustrated by his cloister-like inaccessibility, don't seem too picky about who their candidate is. "At this point, it's like beating Bush," says the Cross-Town Coalition's Lisa Merki.

Licata, for the record, will say only that he's "letting other people make the judgment" about his mayoral prospects. But even the left-of-center council veteran acknowledges that, politically, he is everything disaffected neighborhoods say they want: a pro-neighborhood candidate with grassroots support among minorities, human-services organizations, and community organizations. "The neighborhoods certainly have not bought into supporting Greg. Despite 'Neighbors for Nickels' [the mayor's badly misnamed campaign organization], he doesn't have ongoing rapport with people in general. He's definitely vulnerable." In the most recent poll, conducted by Stuart Elway in late 2002, Nickels' negatives hovered somewhat north of 50 percent.

Close observers wouldn't be amiss if they also noticed Peter Steinbrueck taking on a higher profile in recent weeks. Steinbrueck made several eloquent (and, even for the former council president, unusually dramatic) speeches during the council's recent deliberations on Nickels' budget cuts, and was on the lonely losing end of the council's 8-1 budget-slashing vote. Steinbrueck (who calls Nickels "the most inaccessible mayor I've ever seen") wouldn't confirm or deny that he's running.

Nickels is, in many respects, a popular mayor. "Nickels has done an excellent job keeping a broad coalition of interests happy," says political consultant Christian Sinderman. "The worst thing you can fault Greg for is boldly advancing an agenda."

Consultant Blair Butterworth says Nickels (unlike other recent mayors, such as Norm Rice) hasn't "invested in the politics of persona" by building up a public personality that could endear him to wary neighborhoods. Instead, Butterworth says, "Greg has invested in the politics of policy." But barring some "unbelievable" event, like another Mardi Gras or WTO, Butterworth predicts it will be "difficult" for a cash-starved outsider to take down the best-financed mayor (with $140,000 in the bank at last count) in recent memory.

barnett@thestranger.com

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