WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nobody at the White House would be surprised if President Barack Obama's influential right-hand man, Rahm Emanuel, decides to run for Chicago mayor and already there is speculation as to who would replace him.
Mayor Richard Daley's decision on Tuesday to not seek re-election on February 22 leaves the door open for a run by Emanuel, the expletive-spewing former ballet dancer who has helped guide the direction of Obama's presidency.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Emanuel -- who is so well-known around Washington that often he is referred to simply as "Rahm" -- is staying focused on his job. But Gibbs added, "Obviously, something like that doesn't come around a lot."
Obama's chief political adviser, David Axelrod, told ABC News that the Chicago mayor job "is an unbelievably attractive opportunity."
"And I'm sure if Rahm decides to do that, the president will support that decision," said Axelrod, who is from Chicago and covered city hall for the Chicago Tribune as a young man.
Emanuel's departure would leave a hole in the close-knit White House team and would represent the start of what many Obama watchers expect will be a staff shake-up after the November 2 congressional elections.
Emanuel, 50, though slight of frame, is a towering figure in Washington whose no-nonsense style and experience on Capitol Hill as a former lawmaker from Illinois have combined to help advance Obama's agenda.
As White House chief of staff, Emanuel has a big influence on advancing Obama's legislative priorities as well as who works for the president and even who gets to meet with him.
He has drawn fire from liberals for not engaging in an all-out pursuit of the liberal agenda, while former officials from the Bill Clinton White House where Emanuel cut his political teeth are fiercely supportive of him as the type of person this embattled White House needs.
Chicago newspaper editorial writers said Emanuel would not necessarily be the favorite candidate for mayor, as many others consider a run. Daley said he would not endorse anyone, though it remains to be seen if he would act behind the scenes to promote someone.
Emanuel has until November 30 to file his candidacy, but would probably have to make his intentions known much sooner to give himself time to mount a campaign.
"If that's the direction he decides to go, there are many here who are ready to fill in the breach," Axelrod told NBC's "Today" show. "But he hasn't made that decision."
Obama is likely to face a different political landscape when the next Congress begins in January, and if the Republicans win at least one chamber, it will test his leadership and set the stage for his expected 2012 re-election campaign.
Republicans will doubtless increase their numbers and could be in charge of the House of Representatives and even the Senate. This would increase pressure on Obama to take more centrist positions and allow Republicans a greater voice in governing.
A host of potential Rahm replacements were being talked about around town, including three prominent White House insiders: deputy national security adviser Tom Donilon; Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, and Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett.
Donilon accompanied Obama's chief economic adviser Larry Summers to Beijing in recent days to talk with Chinese officials about North Korea, Iran and global economic rebalancing.
Klain has a long history in Democratic politics. He was Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff.
Jarrett came to Washington from Chicago with Obama and she is close to both the president and his wife, Michelle Obama.
But there are also some outsiders whose names have surfaced, such as Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and multimillionaire who has a deep business background.
And two former Clinton aides, current CIA chief Leon Panetta and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, were also objects of some speculation.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Alister Bull and Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Andrew Stern in Chicago; editing by Philip Barbara