Carmen Trutanich and Steve Cooley are about as close as two politicians can be. But their relationship has been strained in recent weeks as Cooley nears a decision on whether to retire after three terms as L.A. district attorney.

Trutanich, who became city attorney largely thanks to Cooley’s backing, has told supporters he will run for DA if Cooley steps down.

Cooley has other ideas. According to DA insiders, his preferred candidate is Jackie Lacey, his No. 3 administrator, who could make history as L.A.’s first black, and first female, DA.

When Trutanich’s name came up at a press conference in December, Cooley seemed to rule him out, reminding the press corps of Trutanich’s pledge to serve two terms as city attorney.

Soon after, they both attended the city attorney’s holiday party and seemed to get along fine.

But shortly after the first of the year, Cooley got a call from John Shallman, the consultant who ran an insurgent campaign to oust Gil Garcetti in 2000. Shallman, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation, told Cooley that he would be managing Trutanich’s campaign.

Cooley was livid.

He had lent credibility to Trutanich when he was still a long-shot for city attorney, and helped him retire campaign debt after he had won. He had made Trutanich.

In some ways, it was a double betrayal. Cooley apparently had hoped that Shallman would work for Lacey. Shallman also called her to inform her of his decision. She now is in search of a consultant.

Trutanich has not declared his intentions publicly.

“He’s not running for district attorney at this time,” says Trutanich spokesman John Franklin. “From all he understands, Steve Cooley is still running.”

Although Cooley has given every indication of being ready to retire in 2012, he has not officially ruled out seeking a fourth term. But now, if he wants to keep Trutanich out of the race, he may have to run.

Many supporters have been urging Trutanich to throw his hat in the ring. So far, the only declared candidates are career prosecutors with little name recognition outside the DA’s Office. Trutanich would be the only candidate with previous political experience, and an instant front-runner.

“The candidate that would be best for the county is Nuch,” says attorney Barry Groveman, referring to Trutanich by his ubiquitous nickname. “He is born to be a great DA.”

But others are less than impressed with Trutanich’s brief tenure as city attorney. His confrontational style has made enemies on the City Council, and some have questioned the wisdom of certain moves, such as the fight with AEG over the cost of Michael Jackson’s memorial and his effort to obtain grand jury powers.

“He’s fucking insane,” one former contributor to Trutanich tells the Weekly. “He sounds like a thug.”

Without Cooley’s support, Trutanich’s path to victory would rely heavily on law enforcement groups. The county’s police unions, which have strongly backed Cooley in the past, are waiting to see whether he retires before looking closely at possible replacements.

Timing is important. Alan Jackson, a Republican prosecutor, announced his candidacy last month and has already picked up contributions from people who gave to Trutanich in the city attorney’s race.

At his December press conference, Cooley made it clear that he intended to control events as much as possible. He said he wouldn’t want to turn over the office to someone who would “denigrate it and ruin it.”

But the last few weeks have shown that he doesn’t have as much control over the succession battle as he had hoped.

As for Cooley’s friendship with Trutanich, although Trutanich has told supporters that he definitely will run for DA if Cooley bows out, he has not yet told Cooley that.

“Trutanich is very independent,” Groveman says. “He’s his own master.”

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