The candidate in the sweat-soaked white dress shirt strode up the concrete steps of a tidy bungalow on Louisa Street and greeted the elderly man sitting on the porch.

“Hi, I’m Michael Bagneris,” he said, sticking out his hand. “I’m running for mayor, and I certainly would appreciate your vote.”

The man accepted a campaign brochure and, remaining in his chair, said Bagneris had his vote. The candidate smiled and left to walk to the next house.

But as he was pointing out the illegal placement of an opponent’s yard sign on city property, it began to rain, and Bagneris had to dash for shelter at Sampson Playground across the street.

“This was my old stomping ground,” he said, introducing himself to a couple of voters also huddling there from the rain. Bagneris grew up blocks away, in the old Desire public housing complex.

After months of uncertainty over exactly who would run, the race to elect New Orleans’ next mayor has finally achieved liftoff. In all, 18 candidates qualified for the Oct. 14 primary; a runoff, if necessary, will be held the next month. The winner will succeed Mayor Mitch Landrieu on May 7.

Bagneris and the other top-tier candidates, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, have spent the past week continuing to hit up potential donors for campaign contributions and ask opinion leaders in one-on-one meetings for their support.

With the field now known, the race has entered a new phase. The candidates are jockeying for the endorsements of key political groups, and three of them have launched their first television ads this week.

“They are transitioning from backroom politics — raising money and putting together political support — to trying to get public support by making more speeches and beginning advertising,” said Ron Faucheux, a veteran campaign consultant and former state representative who finished second to Dutch Morial in the 1982 mayor’s race. “The major candidates will rapidly move into the public mode. You’ll see more visible activity. For the most part, voters have not been widely engaged.”

Bagneris, 67, saw that when he greeted a man washing his truck in his driveway.

“When is the election?” the man asked.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know,” Bagneris remarked as he walked away.

Two C's and a B

Political insiders almost universally agree that the top two candidates at this point are Charbonnet and Cantrell, with Bagneris — a former Civil District Court judge who also ran four years ago — trailing them.

Charbonnet, 49, has easily outdistanced the field in raising money, according to campaign finance reports made public Monday, and she has the support of two local political heavyweights, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

Cantrell, 45, can boast of leading in the early polls. One reason for that: She’s the best-known candidate, according to a public opinion survey conducted in June by pollster Verne Kennedy on behalf of a group of businessmen.

Bagneris challenged Landrieu in the 2014 mayor’s race and lost badly, taking 33 percent of the vote. With at least two other black major candidates in this year’s race, Bagneris will face stiff competition for those voters.

Two businessmen — Troy Henry and Frank Scurlock — are fighting to be seen as major candidates. Henry is starting later than the others, having entered the race on the final day of qualifying. He does have campaign experience, having finished second in the 2010 race against Landrieu, though with just 14 percent of the vote.

The only other candidate with somewhat of a public profile is accountant Tommie Vassel, who served on the Sewerage & Water Board. But political insiders give him and the other 12 candidates little or no chance to win the race.

The race is beginning to heat up at a time when polls show crime is by far voters’ biggest concern, and shootings and homicides are up over the past year.

About half of the city’s voters believe New Orleans is on the wrong track, while only one-third think it’s on the right track, according to Kennedy’s June public opinion survey.

Until qualifying ended, most of the attention focused on who would actually jump into the race to succeed Landrieu, who by law cannot seek a third term.

Last-minute decisions

The week of qualifying saw a flurry of last-minute, behind-the-scenes efforts by local movers and shakers to get state Rep. Walt Leger III, state Sen. JP Morrell and former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite to reconsider their decisions not to run. But each of them stayed out. Sidney Torres, a high-profile businessman who had a long public dalliance with a bid, announced on the final day of qualifying that he also was going to take a pass.

Jason Williams, an at-large member of the City Council, spent several hours that same day seriously reconsidering his decision to stay out of the mayor’s race, according to two people who spoke with him, before finally deciding to stick with his plan to seek re-election to the council.

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson met with Cantrell on July 7 to tell Cantrell — who has been a close political ally — that she had changed her mind and wanted to run for mayor after all. Cantrell confirmed that the meeting took place at the rectory of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. The Rev. John Asare-Dankwah has been a pastor to both women.

Even though Peterson has held office longer, Cantrell told her that she would not change her decision to run.

“I just indicated that I’m in the middle of the river and moving forward,” Cantrell said in an interview Friday. “I have been committed to this. I want to do the job. There was no arguing.”

Peterson opted to stay out. Any ill feelings over the dust-up did not keep Peterson from attending Cantrell’s campaign kickoff Tuesday night. (Peterson didn't respond to a text asking about what happened with Cantrell.)

The uncertainty over who might run has left many opinion-makers without a candidate in the early stages of the campaign.

“A lot of people who are politically active are trying to pick a horse,” said Leger. “A lot of people are having a lot of conversations about: What do we do?”

David Kerstein, the president and CEO of Helis Interests, confirmed this.

“There are certainly people reaching out,” said Kerstein, who, as president of the influential Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, has not taken sides. “It’s quite early in the campaign.” The Business Council will not endorse a candidate.

How deep a connection?

The candidates have yet to show clear differences over the issues, but they are beginning to highlight their differences in personality.

Cantrell’s campaign kickoff highlighted her background as a community activist who led the recovery of the Broadmoor neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina.

One question hanging over Cantrell is whether voters will care that she was born in Los Angeles, grew up there and didn’t move to New Orleans until she attended Xavier University. This is a parochial city, after all, where a defining question often is: "Where’d you go to (high) school?"

Cantrell and her team of political advisers sought to quell any questions about her background by featuring music from a boys choir, Mardi Gras Indians and a brass band at her campaign kickoff at the New Orleans Jazz Market, which also included testimonials from five residents and two pastors.

“No one questioned if I was born in New Orleans” while she was working for Broadmoor or for the residents of District B on the City Council, Cantrell said in an interview. “I think the people have loved me, and I’ve loved them back.”

Charbonnet, during an interview, sought to highlight her lifelong bond with the city when she said, “There’s nothing like being born and raised in New Orleans.”

When a listener laughed, she chuckled too, and added: “Why do you think I’m talking about this? I think people in New Orleans want to know that you understand them and you’ve known the culture and the people, and you’ve seen the changes from when you were a child until today and you understand them and their needs.”

Interviews with undecided political insiders indicate that for some, their biggest concern about Charbonnet is whether she will be controlled by her political patrons, including Richmond, bail bondsman Blair Boutte, attorney Ike Spears and her brother, Bernard, an attorney nicknamed "Bunny."

The men drafted Charbonnet to run, and they have a reputation for playing hardball. Charbonnet's initial campaign finance report shows loads of $5,000 contributions — the maximum allowed — from city contractors.

Charbonnet brushes off the concern.

“First of all, I’ve never been controlled by anybody,” she said. “As a matter of fact, it’s becoming insulting to me that people are saying that about me. I’ve been a judge and sat on the bench for the past 10 years. I’ve made hard decisions every day. For people to think I’ll need help managing this city is preposterous.”

Charbonnet, who launched her first ad on Saturday, scored one victory over Cantrell during the past week when the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO gave her its endorsement.

Needed: Higher profiles

Bagneris on Wednesday launched two television ads, one reintroducing him to voters and the other touting his anti-crime credentials. With Bagneris lagging in contributions, the ads appear to represent an effort to raise his standing in polls enough to encourage potential donors to open their checkbooks for him.

“He needs to raise his profile,” said Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans' Survey Research Center.

Like Charbonnet and Cantrell, Bagneris said New Orleans needs to hire more police officers and deploy its existing police force more effectively.

“Unless you address the crime problem first, nothing else falls into place,” he said.

Henry’s anti-crime program focuses on creating jobs and points to his experience as a businessman. He owns Shell gas stations, plus a company that provides fuel to his and other Shell stations, and a company that leases an airplane for private use. Henry, 56, also holds consulting contracts with the New Orleans City Council and with private companies that he would not identify.

“You can’t arrest your way to a peaceful city while so many people are living in poverty,” he said.

Although Henry is hyping his business acumen, not all of his ventures have succeeded. His Sterling Farms grocery store in Marrero closed in 2014 after being in business for a year.

Scurlock, who also began his television ad campaign during the past week, told members of the Kiwanis Club of Algiers on Thursday night that his main claim is that he grew a family business into Space Walk Inflatable Zoo. He called it the nationwide rental side of the inflatable bouncy house business. His ex-wife now owns the company.

Scurlock, 54, told the crowd that he has never run for public office before.

“Nobody owns me,” he told 75 people at the Aurora Swim and Tennis Club. “I am self-funded to date” — to the tune of $600,000, according to the latest campaign finance report.

Scurlock stayed through the rest of the meeting — including a Boudreaux and Thibodeaux joke that can’t be printed in the newspaper — to talk to voters one on one afterward.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.