CHICAGO — Just days ago, Rahm Emanuel seemed to be steamrolling the entire field of candidates for Chicago mayor. He had millions in the bank, a huge lead in the polls and abundant opportunities to show off his influence, including a meeting with the visiting Chinese president.
But on Monday, the former White House chief of staff was waging a desperate bid to keep his campaign alive after an Illinois appeals court kicked him off the ballot for not meeting a residency requirement. The surprise decision threw the race into disarray with less than a month to go.
Emanuel's lawyers quickly sought help from the Illinois Supreme Court, asking the justices to stop the appellate ruling and to hear an appeal as soon as possible. But time was running short, since the Chicago Board of Elections planned to begin printing ballots without Emanuel's name within days.
"I have no doubt that we will in the end prevail at this effort. This is just one turn in the road," Emanuel said, adding that the "people of the city of Chicago deserve the right to make the decision on who they want to be their next mayor."
Emanuel's rivals, who have been overshadowed by his name recognition and deep pockets, immediately sought to take advantage of the threat to his candidacy, asking voters to take another look at their campaigns.
The three members of the appeals court panel, all fellow Democrats, ruled 2-1 to overturn a lower-court ruling that would have kept his name on the Feb. 22 ballot.
The election board chairman, Langdon Neal, said there wasn't much time left to print ballots. Early voting was set to begin in just a week, on Jan. 31.
"We can't wait and stop what we're doing to adjust to every possibility that may occur," Neal said. "The possible situations that could occur are numerous."
Emanuel's lawyers said their appeal would be filed no later than Tuesday.
For the case to be reviewed by the high court, the justices would first have to agree to take it. If they did, they would normally invite arguments from both sides before ruling either to uphold the appellate decision or to restore Emanuel's name.
One of Emanuel's main challenges was the fact that the majority concluded there were no gray areas in the residency requirement.
"They are looking at the statute and taking it at face value," said Christopher Keleher, a Chicago-based expert on appellate litigation. "They say it requires you live here physically for a year. He didn't, so they say he doesn't qualify."
Emanuel's lawyers have little time to present arguments before the high court. And justices used to deliberating for months will now have only days.
"The turnaround time for the Supreme Court to make a decision will have to be amazingly fast," Keleher said. "Emanuel is clearly behind the eight ball."
Emanuel's attorney said he was hopeful the Supreme Court would accept the case, especially since the appeals court decision was not unanimous.
"I think the fact that there's a dispute within the appellate court certainly makes the case more enticing to the Supreme Court," lawyer Mike Kasper said.
Asked to speculate on how the Supreme Court might rule, Keleher said it could be a close vote – but he believed the justices would also rule against Emanuel.
"I can tell you from experience that getting a reversal from any Supreme Court is difficult – even more so when you've got a truncated time frame," Keleher said.
If Emanuel does lose, it is unlikely he could convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Keleher added, since it involves Chicago city law, and the justices are likely to see any federal constitutional issues at play.
Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said if the appellate decision is upheld, Emanuel's only choice might be to run a write-in campaign.
No candidate for mayor in Chicago has ever won a write-in campaign. "It's probably impossible," Simpson said.
The residency questions have dogged Emanuel ever since he announced his candidacy last fall. Those challenging Emanuel have argued that he does not meet the one-year residency requirement because he rented out his Chicago home and moved his family to Washington to work for President Barack Obama for nearly two years.
Emanuel has said he always intended to return to Chicago and was only living in Washington at the request of the president. He moved back to Chicago in October after he quit working for Obama to campaign full-time for mayor.
Emanuel is one of several candidates vying to replace Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who did not seek a seventh term.
The board of elections and a Cook County judge have both ruled in favor of Emanuel, a former congressman, saying he did not abandon his Chicago residency when he went to work at the White House.
Before Monday's ruling, the attorney who represents two voters objecting to Emanuel's candidacy had little luck trying to keep him off the ballot.
"Have I stood down at all? No, I've been confident all along because that's the law," attorney Burt Odelson said Monday. He said he welcomed a hearing by the state Supreme Court.
Emanuel's three main rivals – former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, former schools President Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle – have been critical of him during the race, calling him an outsider who doesn't know Chicago.
Monday's decision had the potential to reset the race, and the candidates seized the moment to ask for votes.
"I'm extending a hand of friendship to all the Chicagoans who have been supporting Mr. Emanuel and all those who haven't made their minds up yet," Braun said.
Del Valle said Monday's court decision bodes well for the other candidates and voters who may have thought the race was a foregone conclusion because Emanuel had raised so much money.
"Now voters see there's an opportunity to look at the field and give candidates either a second look or in some cases a first look. People are going to pay more attention to the other candidates," del Valle said.
Emanuel appeared to get a big boost last week when his campaign announced he raised more than $10 million and was endorsed by former President Bill Clinton during an event in Chicago.
A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll also released last week showed Emanuel with the support of 44 percent of those surveyed. The same poll found 21 percent of registered voters questioned preferred Braun. Sixteen percent favored Chico and 7 percent supported del Valle.
Sara Grosby, 58, said she was shocked by the court ruling. She was leaning toward voting for Emanuel, but now must reconsider the other candidates.
"In my opinion, he already was a civil servant, working for Obama," said Grosby, an aviation security worker at O'Hare Airport. "I would think the court could cut him some slack."
Associated Press writers Don Babwin, Karen Hawkins, Tammy Webber, Sophia Tareen and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.