Explain. Empathize. Don't whine. Reduced to their nub, those are Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's mantras as he prepares to lead his city (and maybe his state) through harrowing economic straits.

"I'm an optimist at heart, and I should be, because I get to be mayor of an incredible city," DFLer Rybak said last week about the leadership challenge that's before him in 2009.

"But people are hurting right now. It's important to speak for both my optimism and the reality I see on the street. ... In a clear, nonwhiney kind of way, I want to explain to people that when you make a massive cut [in state aid to cities,] there is a consequence in the services people get."

Rybak, 53, is heading into the final year of his second term as one of the state's more-senior and most-visible mayors. He says he's still weighing whether to seek a third term in 2009. He's openly interested in running for governor in 2010. (He's not alone.)

But with urban unemployment and homelessness spiking, state aid to cities falling, and many of his mayoral accomplishments at risk of erosion as a result, Rybak has a lot more to think about these days than the next election.

Government in Minnesota consists of a complex web of state and local relationships. That web ripped during the last recession. City governments got an overload of fiscal pain.

That could happen again in 2009. City officials are looking to the leaders in their own ranks to both shield and guide them. By dint of his city's stature and his own, they are looking to Rybak.

Some years ago, they would have been looking at a mayor known more for his bursts of enthusiasm than for gravitas. At one point, Rybak experienced the political oddity of being criticized for excessive cheerleading on his city's behalf.

But that's not Rybak circa 2009. With assistance from a shrewd chief of staff, Tina Smith, and very capable city coordinator, Steven Bosacker, Rybak has developed a disciplined, data-driven governing style in his second term.

He hasn't taken to wearing green eyeshades. But he spends long hours digesting the finer points of his city's budget and shaping it to serve five-year and 2020 policy goals. He meets weekly with management teams to track performance and progress toward city goals. All of that is visible to the public on the Results Minneapolis Web page, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/results-oriented-minneapolis.

Consequently, the lean-times leadership Rybak offers looks more substantive today than it was six years ago. He has a firmer handle on what it takes to keep 911 response times low, crime rates down, residential water rates affordable and foreclosure-riddled neighborhoods livable. He can describe in detail what happens when a big city takes 100 police officers off the streets, then puts them back, as Minneapolis did in the past two years. Violent crime is down 25 percent in the city in that same time.

But he also has seen that more money isn't the best solution to every problem, and that the government structures of yesteryear aren't optimal for today's tasks.

"We have too much government in this region," Rybak said. "I want state government to partner with cities to look at ways for us to share services with each other, with school districts, with counties."

For example, he said, why not consolidate some fire departments in the metro area? Why should inner-ring suburbs have to tackle poverty-related problems on their own? Why shouldn't all public employees be covered by the same pension system and uniform pension rules?

"I believe in delivering results. I don't believe in wasting taxpayers' money on overlapping services," Rybak said. He helped found the Regional Mayors Association and says it is poised to rub out duplication.

All of that gives the Minneapolis mayor heightened credibility as city aid goes on the state's chopping block again.

"Everybody has to make cuts," Rybak said. But this time, he says, the consequences of cuts should be explained thoroughly and realistically, and moves that could yield long-term savings need to be favored. This time, "we need to look in front of our noses and on the horizon at the same time," he said.

If he's a leader in helping Minnesota do that, questions about Rybak's future in state politics will answer themselves.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.