The phones are ringing. Signatures are being gathered. Groups are vetting who to support. If White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is going to launch his expected campaign for mayor of Chicago, the clock is ticking on getting started.

Prospective candidates are lining up support around town, reaching out to business leaders, union officials, activists and others. Unlike Emanuel, who has not been seen in Chicago since Mayor Richard Daley announced he would not seek re-election and even canceled a trip to the city, some already are showing up at local events and drawing voters into their corners.

"I met with business leaders, I met with labor leaders, religious leaders, an individual who is a representative of the gay community," said James Meeks, a state senator and one of the Chicago's leading black clergymen, who is gathering signatures and widely expected to run.

And, he said, "It has reached the point where I've talked to a group of people who can write some fairly large checks."

Even if Emanuel decides to run, it's not clear whether he would leave President Barack Obama's administration before the Nov. 2 midterm elections. Playing wait and see now could find him playing catch-up later.

While Emanuel has clearly been working the phones and meeting with Chicago politicians in Washington — and immediately would be considered a heavyweight if he entered the race — his absence from the city is only highlighted by other actions by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and others.

Dart will enter the race, according to people close to him, and this week alone he's doing something other candidates, particularly Emanuel, cannot: Making news for doing his job in Chicago. He's touted an arrest by his office of someone suspected of bilking a mentally disabled man out of tens of thousands of dollars and issued a news release about a new partnership with federal agents to prevent abuse and theft of prescription drugs.

Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, another possible candidate, attended a recent protest march by Chicago police who are angry at their boss, Superintendent Jody Weis. Fioretti told officers he supports them and believes, as they do, Weis should be replaced; he mentioned that his supporters were collecting petition signatures too.

Mayoral candidates need 12,500 valid signatures to get on February's ballot. And Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist and a former alderman, said that actually means collecting about 30,000 to ensure a spot once any number of signatures are thrown out for one reason or another.

That takes people working the streets. While Meeks and Dart and others are seen by analysts as able to reach that number, Simpson said he is not sure Emanuel, with no apparent army of volunteers at his disposal, can do the same.

"My sense is Rahm won't be able to pull it together," Simpson said. But, he said, "If he does enter the race soon and uses the money he has he could hire the people (to collect signatures)."

Some black and Latino candidates mulling a run are preparing for interviews with a coalition of black and Latino clergymen, union leaders, elected officials and others who are holding what amounts to their own mini primary to determine a single candidate to support.

City Clerk Miguel del Valle has announced his run and released a television ad, while U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez has been gathering signatures for support in Chicago's heavily-Mexican enclaves. Former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who announced this week she was considering a run, is making her own rounds of the city.

But to some, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, the interviews are the whole ball game.

"If I'm chosen then I'm a candidate," he said. "If (they) choose someone else, I will support whoever they choose."

Meeks said he doesn't know whether he also would drop out without that group's support, but he may be a front-runner to win it after finishing first last week among 16 candidates in a straw poll of 100 ministers, most from black churches on the city's South and West sides.

As in any race, money will surely whittle down the field of candidates. To be competitive, Simpson said, each mayoral candidate will need at least $4 million to campaign.

As a result, "Smart candidates are putting together their finance committees right now," said Tom Manion, a longtime Chicago political operative. "They're making a lot of phone calls, seeing what kind of (financial) support they could get."

A big reason, he said, is they know that while Emanuel may not be in town now, he will have a lot of money to throw around if he does enter the race.

Emanuel has about $1.75 million in his political war chest, and Manion noted Emanuel's knack for campaign fundraising. In 1989, he helped raise millions of dollars for Daley's first mayoral election, and he famously led the national Democrats' campaign to win back a majority in the U.S. House in 2006.


Associated Press writers Tammy Webber and Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.