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Watching Christine Quinn address a big meeting room packed with Brooklyn residents on Monday, you might have thought that the City Council speakership gives its occupant a foolproof springboard to the mayoralty.
Green banners, hung inside and outside the Swinging Sixties Senior Center in Williamsburg, thanked Democrat Quinn and local Councilmember Diana Reyna for rescuing the center from a threatened funding cutoff.
Children from its in-house Small World Day Care Center, also spared the budget ax, expressed thanks on cue.
Though Quinn gently reminded Reyna that it was an official council event, not a campaign stop, her Democratic colleague introduced her as "our next mayor" and gushingly hailed her leadership.
You would not have guessed that Quinn's uncontested front-runner status in public polls has evaporated, leading critics and allies alike to try to diagnose that slippage. And some of the problem, they suggest, involves the very same day job that gave Quinn her name recognition and an early polling edge.
Now she's hitting back. In a NY1 News interview Tuesday, she slammed Public Advocate Bill de Blasio as "desperate" for "sadly attacking" the council, and said Bill Thompson, while comptroller, was "asleep at the switch" as the city was ripped off by a computer contractor.
Once identified as the candidate to beat, she took a verbal beating for months in dozens of candidate forums, from Democratic rivals bent on criticizing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with whom Quinn has negotiated eight budgets and largely shares a governing record.
Bruised, she began to pointedly distance herself from the mayor on hotly debated policing, labor and school issues.
One Bloomberg aide who declined to be identified suggested her moving away from the mayor backfired and cost her in the polls. But she's also been targeted in independent "Anybody But Quinn" ads whose creators are hostile to her Bloomberg alliance.
Communications Workers of America Local 1180 president Arthur Cheliotes, heading that effort, said of recent polls: "It's clear New Yorkers are agreeing with what our coalition has been saying all along." The ads blast her on issues from term limits to sick leave.
Her vulnerabilities have drawn new inspection. Quinn, elected to her post by other council members, is the only major Democratic contender who never before ran citywide. In 2009, she won a primary in her Manhattan district with 52 percent of the vote, which a former top-level council staffer calls tepid for a legislative leader.
Quinn finessed the question of whether her day job has in some way been a disadvantage. "I've been speaker for almost eight years," she said as she left the senior center. "That's not a disadvantage, it's an honor . . . to work with New Yorkers and deliver great results for the seniors here, the children here."
Does she bear responsibility for the state of the city ? "You have to take responsibility for getting things done, for delivering," she said. "Saving senior centers and day care -- that's work, and that's hard, and I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to do it."
Quinn will soon define herself sharply against her rivals, said one of her leading fundraisers, Robert Zimmerman. "Drawing those distinctions in May or June would have been a waste of time," he said.