CHICAGO (AP) - In a city known for punishing mayors for their handling of snowstorms, Mayor Richard Daley was careful not to step in front of the cameras until the main streets were clear.
When he finally did Thursday, the mayor swiftly brushed aside any criticism of the city's response to the monstrous blizzard that created a startling spectacle: hundreds of motorists stranded overnight on the city's marquee thoroughfare.
So far, few fingers were pointed at Daley, despite some inevitable second-guessing.
Instead, in typically self-effacing Midwestern fashion, some of the very drivers who got stuck on Lake Shore Drive acknowledged it was their fault for using the lakefront roadway in the first place.
Meanwhile, the storm left in its wake one final blow: a band of bitter cold spanning from New Mexico to the Great Lakes that kept roads slick and contributed to at least six new deaths in traffic accidents. Temperatures dropped into the single digits or lower, with wind chills that plunged nearly to minus 30 in some places.
The system dumped more than 20 inches of snow on Chicago, making it the third-largest winter storm in the city's history.
Pressed about whether workers did their best, Daley responded, "Yes, they did. ... They did a very, very good job."
Many people retrieving their cars from tow lots Thursday said they felt no anger toward the city or Daley, who's famous for his stern control of Chicago's inner workings.
"There's not much you can do," said Jarrod Leak, 32. "You're at the mercy of mother nature. I think they did a great job. They got these cars off the road pretty fast. I cannot be thankful enough to the city of Chicago Fire Department."
Tracy Kepler, 42, didn't hold any grudges either.
"It's Chicago. It's a snowstorm," Kepler said. "They did the best they could. They planned the best they could. They towed the cars for free."
With an annual average snowfall of nearly 40 inches, Chicago has always exuded confidence when it comes to clearing snow. It can draw on legions of more than 500 plows and 1,000 workers.
The city even has a high-tech snow command center with giant screens showing up to 1,000 live camera shots of major streets. Officials can call plow drivers to let them know what they've missed.
With so much emphasis on snow removal, even mild criticism can cause leaders to bristle.
But Daley, known for his notorious temper, appeared relaxed and confident and gave no indication he intended to call for anyone's head for the debacle on Lake Shore Drive, where a series of accidents blocked the road and trapped drivers for as long as 12 hours in whiteout conditions.
Still, he also seemed to put some distance between himself and decisions made at the height of the storm.
"They made the decision," he said, flanked by top city officials. "I have confidence in all these people making decisions."
The cleanup accelerated Thursday in Chicago and in scores of other cities across the Midwest and East, but snow-covered roads remained treacherous - and sometimes deadly.
Three people were killed when the SUV they were in skidded off a slick Oklahoma interstate and plunged into an icy river. And in southeastern Michigan, three people in two pickup trucks were killed when one driver lost control on an icy highway and collided head-on with the other vehicle.
The storm befell Chicago just weeks before a mayoral election, normally a highly sensitive time for an incumbent. Mayor Michael Bilandic lost in the 1979 Democratic primary after the city failed to clear streets fast enough after a storm. Voters have embraced Daley in part because he's kept the city in business every winter.
But the pressure is not nearly as intense on Daley since he is not seeking another term. Asked if he might have reacted differently if he were a candidate, Daley responded flatly, "No."
Political scientist Paul Green of Roosevelt University said he thought Daley should have spoken up in public earlier. But he was sure the storm would not tarnish the mayor 22-year tenure.
"One day is not going to destroy his legacy," Green said.
At least some candidates appeared to calculate that they gained nothing politically by criticism the outgoing mayor. That included front-runner and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who told reporters Thursday it would be premature to punish anyone for the response to the storm.
"The people of the city of Chicago responded the way that I know the people of the city of Chicago would always respond: with big shoulders for digging and big hearts for checking on their neighbors," he said.
Other mayoral candidates weren't so circumspect.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun said Lake Shore should have been closed sooner to avoid stranding drivers. She attributed the tie-ups to "inadequate planning."
"In Chicago, you can anticipate snowstorms," she said. "If your planning is geared toward the expectations and worst-case scenarios, then you can respond with much more ease and alacrity."
Another candidate, City Clerk Miguel del Valle, took Daley to task for not appearing in public during the storm, saying that was "out of character" for the six-term leader.
"The mayor has to be front and center," he said.
Daley's chief of staff, Raymond Orozco, said it was his decision not to close Lake Shore because of the blizzard and apologized repeatedly. He said closing the drive earlier would have resulted in disastrous traffic and possible accidents on other streets.
Chicago is hardly the only major city where snow removal carries high political stakes.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was stung recently by complaints after crews struggled to clear neighborhoods following a post-Christmas storm that produced nearly 2 feet of snow.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank that has been assessing city snow removal for years, gave Chicago an "F" on its response on Lake Shore Drive. But the city earned a "B" for how it cleared main roads overall, a "C" for side streets.
Daniel Anthony, a snow analyst for the institute, said Chicago's overall cleanup "did really well" when compared with New York.
But the city, and Daley himself, should still account for the problems on Lake Shore Drive, including the failure to get the word out immediately that cars were becoming trapped.
"Snow removal is a good proxy for how city government serves its citizens," Anthony said. "And while the city's otherwise done well, Lake Shore Drive has to be addressed."
Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen, Don Babwin, Karen Hawkins, Tammy Webber and Barbara Rodriguez, Jim Suhr in St. Louis and David Mercer in Champaign contributed to this report.