Mayor Thomas M. Menino will stand on a political precipice Tuesday night when he enters a packed Faneuil Hall, confronted by a 50-foot walk up the center aisle to a podium for one of the most significant moments in his civic life.
Stepping onto the red carpet with a cane, Menino will face Massachusetts’ political establishment. It will mark the mayor’s return to the public stage after the longest absence of his career, a trying stretch that has included an eight-week hospital stay and continued convalescence as he has struggled to walk.
The focus for many in the 271-year-old building will be less on what Menino says in his 20th State of the City address than on his physical presence. In political circles, there has been intrigue about the mayor’s first steps toward the stage and whether he will have the fortitude to deliver a major policy address.
“It’s a vitally important speech,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “All Bostonians are going to be looking to see whether he still has the vigor to carry on as mayor. . . . Does he have the physical capacity and the stamina to serve another four years?”
Watching the speech from century-old maple chairs, politicians with mayoral ambitions will study Menino’s movements, wondering if this will finally be their year. No one expects him to announce from the podium if he will seek reelection. But they will be looking for clues when Menino enters Faneuil Hall for the 7 p.m. speech, carried live on television and the Internet.
“It will be like Larry Bird returning to the Garden,” said James T. Brett, a former state representative whom Menino defeated in his first mayoral election, in 1993. “The noise level is going to be at an all-time high in the sense of the enthusiasm for the mayor.”
Menino must decide by May 13 whether he will apply for nomination papers, the first in a series of steps in seeking a sixth term. His political account has roughly $650,000, less than half his balance of four years ago but more than many potential rivals. In an interview late last week, Menino remained coy about his political future but hinted he was not preparing to say goodbye .
“People want to say it’s the end,” Menino said of his time in office. “I think [they will find] it’s a speech of the future. One thing I want to make sure the message is: [I’m] still energized, energized to get out with the people again.”
Menino has been to Faneuil Hall to practice the walk up the center aisle, a distance he said he can cover easily because of the practice he has had strolling the long hallways at Parkman House, the city-owned mansion where he has lived since his Dec. 23 release from the hospital. A tailor recently visited to take in the mayor’s suit because he has lost weight since being hospitalized and diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
“It will be a good moment for him to show that he’s back,” Councilor Matt O’Malley said.
At Faneuil Hall, Menino will not speak from the main stage because it would require climbing several steps. Instead, his staff has constructed a dais one step off the floor, a platform identical to the setup for the 2011 State of the City address, when the mayor tottered on crutches up the center aisle as a brass quintet played “Gonna Fly Now,’’ the theme song from the movie “Rocky.’’
Menino demurred when asked about this year’s entrance music and said his focus remains on practicing the speech, which he said was making him “angry” because he had yet to deliver it to his liking.
“There is a tone I want to give in the speech, and I haven’t been able to get to that tone yet,” Menino said. “You have to feel the speech. You can’t read a speech off a piece of paper and say this is a speech.”
One longtime political observer, Lawrence S. DiCara, has discerned signs of Menino gearing up for another run.
“This is more like a coming out party than it is a farewell victory tour, that’s my gut instinct,” said DiCara, a former City Council president who is writing a book about Boston politics. “This is to show everybody he’s back. He wants the world to know he is still in charge. And he is. There’s no doubt about that.”
Another former city councilor, Michael J. McCormack, said he was eating dinner at the Drydock Cafe in South Boston a few Friday nights back when Menino and his wife arrived unannounced for dinner.
“People literally gave him a standing ovation, seeing that he was able to get around and healthy,” McCormack said. “When he walks down the aisle at Faneuil Hall with a cane under his own power, it’s going to be one of those defining Boston political moments. He’s the longest-serving mayor and has an enormous reservoir of good will.”
The crowd of 800 inside the Great Hall will include most of the Massachusetts political world as the state prepares for two years of flux. Major contests loom on the horizon: a special election for US Senate, a Boston municipal brawl, and an open governor’s race in 2014.
Some in the audience might ponder their own futures as they catch a glimpse of Governor Deval Patrick, whose decision not to seek another term could open several elective offices. At least five congressmen are expected to attend, including Representatives Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch, two colleagues who may face off in a Democratic primary to fill the seat of Senator John Kerry.
Another notable face in the crowd will be Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who ended 2012 with a campaign account brimming with $868,000, more than Menino or any Boston city councilor.
But Brett, the opponent Menino vanquished in 1993, had some unsolicited advice for anyone eyeing the mayor’s office, especially those biding their time in the city’s legislative branch.“Be very patient, because I think you’ve got a little wait,” Brett said. “I really believe he is going to run. Members of the Boston City Council, keep your day jobs.”Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.