Credit: CSA Images

Now that a judge has affirmed the ruling by the Board of Election Commissioners that Rahm Emanuel is neither an illegal alien nor an undocumented resident, the mayoral campaign can move ahead in earnest.

Emanuel had a few close calls during his residency hearings, such as when he slipped and said his house was at Hermitage and K Street. But in the end, he and his lawyers—All the Resident’s Men—prevailed. Emanuel celebrated his victory by flying with his wife and three children to Thailand. A true Chicagoan, he probably wanted to vacation in the Wisconsin Dells, but Thailand’s water parks are better.

Barring a surprise reversal by a reviewing court, the mayoral election now is likely to be as suspenseful as it’s been the last 20 years.

Two weeks ago, state senator James Meeks dropped out of the race, throwing his support to an African-American to be named later. On New Year’s Eve, congressman Danny Davis withdrew as well, and both he and Meeks endorsed the leading African-American contender still running, former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun.

Moseley Braun certainly benefits from the withdrawal of her main African-American rivals, but she remains far behind Emanuel. She now is the likeliest to make it into a runoff with Emanuel. A runoff only happens, though, if no candidate gets a majority on February 22. With fewer candidates in the race, it may actually be easier for Emanuel to get that majority. Not all of Meeks’s and Davis’s supporters, after all, will vote for Moseley Braun; some will vote for President Obama’s former chief of staff.

Hurt the most by the departure of Meeks and Davis is Gery Chico, who stood a better chance of sneaking into a runoff if the African-American vote was split four ways (between Davis, Meeks, Moseley Braun, and Emanuel) instead of only two. But don’t count out Chico for runner-up, because Moseley Braun is a candidate with more baggage than the Emanuel family took to Thailand.

In 1991 Mayor Daley trounced Danny Davis 63 percent to 31 percent, and in all the elections after that he won by two-to-one margins—except for the heart-stopping 1995 general election, in which he edged Roland Burris 61 percent to 35 percent.

A Tribune/WGN poll in December showed Emanuel with 32 percent, Chico and Davis each with 9, Meeks with 7, Moseley Braun with 6, and Miguel del Valle with 3. Undecided, with 30 percent, was keeping Emanuel company—but Undecided has no campaign funds.

Emanuel, on the other hand, is swimming in money. He began the race with $1.1 million remaining from a previous congressional campaign, then flew to Los Angeles in November for a fund-raiser hosted by his brother, Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel. Jennifer Hudson will head another big Emanuel fund-raiser on Monday at the House of Blues.

Emanuel is using his oceans of campaign cash to buy ads that will convert many of Undecided’s supporters into yet more Emanuel supporters. Even now, it’s hard to read a local news story online without banging into a “Support Rahm Emanuel” banner, or an exhortation to “Join Rahm’s Campaign.”

And this is just the beginning. Soon it will be impossible to watch TV or listen to radio without hearing about Emanuel’s tenacity. There will be billboards and bumper stickers. Cafes will be offering three-egg Rahmlettes, the United Center will start selling Rahmburgers, bars will be serving Rahm and Cokes. The judges at the polls on election day will be prohibited from wearing Emanuel buttons, but will drop subtle Rahminders anyway: “Do you want a fucking paper ballot, or do you want to use the goddamn touch-screens?”

The subliminal campaign has already begun, if my ears didn’t deceive me on the Red Line P.A. last night:

Ding-dong, “Doors closing. Clark and Division is next. Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors, and consider voting early for Rahm Emanuel.”

“North and Clybourn is next. Priority seating is intended for the elderly, passengers with disabilities, and supporters of Rahm Emanuel.”

“Fullerton is next. Soliciting and gambling are prohibited on CTA vehicles and frowned on by Rahm Emanuel’s plan for a crime-free Chicago.”

“Belmont is next. Your safety is important to Rahm Emanuel. If you observe unwanted packages or suspicious activity, inform the Emanuel campaign immediately.”

“Emanuel is next. Doors will open for all Chicagoans with Rahm Emanuel.”

Some people feel that the gulf in campaign funds between Emanuel and his opponents makes the race unfair. But there’s really nothing unfair about it. Emanuel decides how many of his millions to devote to TV, radio, and Web ads. Miguel del Valle, likewise, can spend his $79 any way he sees fit.

But it’s true that Emanuel’s cash advantage is likely to drain some of the drama from the race. It’s not especially compelling when the main question is whether either Moseley Braun or Chico will win the chance in February of being crushed in April.

That’s why Chicagoans should consider a different method of picking Daley’s successor. In keeping with the season, and in honor of Hizzoner, we should have a Mayor Daley Bowl.

To give Chicagoans a semblance of choice, voters would still go to the polls on February 22, determining the four candidates who make the playoffs. The Final Four would be the African-American, Latino, and white candidates with the highest vote totals, plus the fourth-place finisher, who would get the Daley Wild Card berth.

The Daley Bowl would be held in Soldier Field, with proceeds from ticket sales helping offset the budget deficit. In the first round, the candidate who’d received the most votes in February—Emanuel, no doubt—would take on the Wild Card winner, while the champions of the African-American and Latino divisions faced each other. In light of his borderline residency, Emanuel would be denied home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

A large campaign fund would be no benefit in the Daley Bowl; in fact, it’d be a handicap. In the first round, candidates would be required to convert their funds into quarters, pour them into a bathtub—or, in Emanuel’s case, a yacht—and push the vessel from goal line to goal line.

In the championship, the two finalists would choose to either battle a lion or explain tax increment financing. Last one standing is given the keys to City Hall by Mayor Daley in a ceremony at midfield.

Granted, this isn’t a very democratic way of choosing a mayor. But it would be more fun than what looks like the alternative—voters flipping a coin with Rahm on one side and Emanuel on the other.