The Tampa mayor's race: With Election Day March 1, who's got the momentum?

There haven't been too many questioners at Tampa mayoral forums older than Dick Greco. But last Friday, the 77-year-old former mayor snapped to attention at a Tiger Bay debate at the Straz Center as Sydney Potter, 92, took the mic to ask a question.

The longtime Hills-borough River advocate began by saying, "I've lived in Tampa longer than any of you," before quoting a Tampa Tribune report from the beginning of Pam Iorio's tenure that said the city faced "myriad problems, from criminal neighborhoods, crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing debt and depleting reserves."

And yes, the man Iorio replaced in 2003 was Dick Greco.

Potter later told CL that he thought Greco was "vastly overrated" as mayor, and wouldn't give him another opportunity. But he admitted that he hadn't made up his mind which of the five candidates to vote for.

CL encountered similar ambivalence while speaking to 20 and 30somethings who crowded into the Becks building in Tampa Heights last week before a forum sponsored by the Young Professionals of Tampa.

Attorney Jason Watson said afterwards, "For me personally, I think Bob Buckhorn and Turanchik both stood out from the pack. They were probably the two candidates I knew the least about going into the debate, so I learned a lot there, but I can't say I've made up my final decision."

Pablo Aviles, who works in marketing, expressed the same sentiment. Before the debate he told CL that, all things being equal, he would give preference to the indigenous candidates, Greco and Rose Ferlita. But he changed his tune after the forum. "After listening to Mr. Buckhorn and Turanchik, they changed my opinion on that... I liked how they conducted themselves, they had solid ideas."

Both men said they remained undecided, and would begin closely following the race over the next week before casting their votes.

South Tampa businesswoman Debbie Lundberg went into last week's South Tampa debate forum saying she was also favoring Greco or Rose Ferlita. But after that debate? She still liked the two Ybor City natives, but admitted that Ed Turanchik had impressed, saying he was more "fluid" than she's seen him before.

"I find that a lot of times with him he's a little bit more seemingly out there, almost too futuristic, and last night I thought he had some really solid ideas."

A poll published last weekend suggested that homegrown institutional support for Tampa-born Greco and Ferlita has given them a natural edge over the other three candidates in the race (Turanchik, Buckhorn and Thomas Scott, all coincidentally non-native).

And that's been a gap that those candidates have had to work to overcome since the beginning of the campaign, one voter at a time. For Bob Buckhorn, the lines are blurry as to when he actually began running for office. He boasts that he's knocked on over 25,000 doors, a huge number that reveals his years-long ambition to be the top dog at City Hall (an ambition that went unfulfilled when he lost his bid for mayor in 2003, placing third behind Iorio and Frank Sanchez).

Buckhorn was endorsed by the St. Petersburg Times, and nobody has been consistently better, night after night on the stump. His mantra that he's fighting to make the city dynamic enough to keep the creative class in Tampa seemed in particular to touch the sensibilities at the Young Professionals forum last week.

But the most ascendant candidate trying to convince enough Tampa citizens that he's electable is Ed Turanchik, a favorite of the progressive crowd. His reputation as an ideas machine seems to be converting true believers to his cause, but whether he'll get enough votes to make the run-off is a huge unknown.

Sadly, Tampa City Councilman Thomas Scott, aspiring to become the city's first black mayor, is rarely if ever discussed as having a viable chance for election. Lackluster fundraising has only added to the sense that he is the only candidate on election night not expected to have a chance of making the runoff.

But if that is the case, the 57-year-old pastor can still raise his head high. Although many would consider his 14-year record as a local legislator to be relatively undistinguished, he has impressed many during the mayoral forums, and obviously brings a dose of reality to discussions about how far (or not) race relations have improved in Tampa.

The conventional wisdom says that the two candidates who have been the most specific about how they would take over on Day One, Buckhorn and Turanchik, may be on the outside looking in, while Greco and Ferlita may have the backing to get themselves into a run-off after the March 1 election (a run-off, which appears likely, would take place on March 22 between the two top finishers if no reaches 50 percent).

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