And he pays attention to the city's many smaller ethnic groups, such as Armenians and Filipinos, betting that their support, along with that of voters in his Hollywood district, will be crucial. He says he'll use the same get-out-the-vote techniques that brought record numbers of voters to the polls in November.
Perry believes she'll draw not only the 10% to 13% of votes cast by African Americans, but also fiscal conservatives who like her tough-on-unions talk and pivotal council role in shaping downtown redevelopment.
When people find out she's Jewish, her share of that vote grows dramatically, Perry says, citing internal polling. She also thinks she'll do well among working-class white women and Latinas, who see her as an aspirational figure.
Perry has sought to distinguish herself from her City Hall colleagues by talking bluntly about labor's power in speeches and on the council floor. For instance, she recently suggested that a budget-boosting half-cent sales tax increase shouldn't go on the March ballot because "then there would be no incentive for labor to freeze their raises."
James, the only candidate to support Riordan's proposal to switch new city workers from defined pensions into self-managed 401(k)-style retirement plans, said he would emphasize that stance and his status as the only major candidate not embedded in the City Hall establishment.
GOP ad man Fred Davis recently created a Super PAC to independently support James, and the candidate also believes he'll draw backing from voters disaffected with City Hall.
However, political analysts say a big infusion of outside cash could end up hurting instead of helping the race's only Republican candidate. Los Angeles is largely Democratic, liberal and suspicious of large sums spent to frame a campaign.
Still unclear is whether any candidate will gain the full support of organized labor, which has long been a force in city and regional politics, especially when it comes to fundraising and door-to-door campaigning. Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer, enjoyed backing from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, even when he was calling for employee layoffs. The group is led by one of his closest confidants, Maria Elena Durazo. This week the organization announced that it would make no mayoral endorsement until after the primary.
Unions' financial support, along with the foot soldiers they provide, could be key, especially in the general election, Sonenshein said.
"It could come down to who is seen as more labor-friendly in a labor-dominated town," he said. "Labor is more powerful than business these days."