TAMPA — When a local radio station launched a news talk show last week, host Malcolm Teasdale invited former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco as his guest of honor.
After shaking dozens of hands, hugging men, kissing and complimenting women and munching on some pulled pork, Greco took a flute of champagne into the studio where Teasdale introduced him as "a hero to many of us. A gentleman who's shaped this community."
Then Teasdale said he planned to take a poll: "Should Dick run for mayor? That's the talk. That's been the chatter."
"I get that question about 30 times a day," Greco said later.
So will he give it another go in the March 2011 election, six months after he turns 77?
"There's nothing that I like more than politics, and specifically, being mayor was the high point of my entire life," he said. "What I've got to do in the next several months is ask myself the question honestly, by myself, 'Can you do this for one term? Do you feel up to it?' "
In 2007, he toyed with the idea of running again so seriously that he held a press conference to announce he wouldn't challenge Pam Iorio's bid for a second term. At the time, he said polls showed Iorio would be a tough but not unbeatable opponent.
This time is different.
The seat is open, with Iorio term-limited out of the post. And in an election with a typical turnout of about 30 percent, name recognition counts.
Greco definitely has that. He was a popular mayor, serving from 1967 to 1974 and again from 1995 to 2003.
But this time, Greco is also different.
Three months ago, he had surgery to treat a narrowing of his spinal cord that caused him severe pain.
"I faked it for a year," he said.
He took a pass on a fishing trip because he didn't want anyone helping him in and out of the boat. Ultimately, he relented and went under the knife for three hours. The procedure went well. He left the hospital three days early and shopped for an hour and a half at Nordstrom with his wife, Linda McClintock Greco, the day after that.
But he still walks slowly and with a bit of a limp.
"Nerve damage," he said.
The experience threw him for a loop.
"I was scared to death. I'd never had any surgery like that. I'd never been to the hospital. I never even had my tonsils out," he said.
Before the surgery, his most serious medical condition was a cavity at age 40, he said.
"The back problem got my attention," he said.
He feels good now, he said.
But if he were to run for mayor, and possibly win, he would want to be able to do it with the same energy he did in the past. For Greco, that meant putting in 20 hours a day if necessary and keeping a police radio by his side so he could check out emergencies in the middle of the night.
"If my back is hurting and I can't walk around, I'm not going to think about running for political office," said Greco, a Democrat who sometimes supported Republicans.
The city is different, too.
During Greco's last stint as mayor, he presided over the development of Centro Ybor, lobbied for a sales tax that helped build Raymond James Stadium, grew the Police Department and bought up riverfront property. He unveiled a monumental new art museum that was later scaled back by the more practical Iorio.
The days when Greco could negotiate big deals are over.
Today's city government is marked by massive budget cuts, layoffs, and projects that can't get done.
It's tougher than it's ever been probably in my lifetime," he said. "There's not a way to quickly change this."
That, he said, doesn't scare him. But he still comes back to the question: "Can I do it?"
Some are convinced he will.
"I firmly believe that Dick Greco will be a candidate for mayor," said City Council member Charlie Miranda, who recently had lunch with Greco in West Tampa. "Did he tell me that? Absolutely not."
But Miranda, himself in his 70s, said he saw the shine of a 40- or 50-year-old in Greco's eye.
"He was vibrant, he was energetic," he said. "What I was looking at was a candidate that would be hard to beat."
Some say Greco aspires to be both the city's youngest and oldest mayor. Some say his wife is pushing him to run.
"I don't push Dick Greco to do anything," said McClintock Greco, who married the sitting mayor 14 years ago. "Being mayor was the happiest I've ever seen him. When you love somebody, you want them to be fulfilled, even if it's not in the best interest for your personal life."
On the other hand, she notes, she already understands what it means to be in the public eye. When she married Greco, details of her five previous marriages appeared in the newspaper. And after Greco left office, she hit the papers again after allegedly throwing a cup of hot coffee at a South Tampa gym manager.
"I've already paid the price of admission,' she said.
Others say Greco should not run.
"Dick's had his turns," said Tampa businessman Bob Clark. "He should enjoy being a senior statesman. Because he has a lot of clout, a lot of influence. He does a lot of good things. He doesn't need to get his life tied up trying to run a city again. All of us love him. He is just a wonderful guy. Wherever he goes he is the center of attention."
Former Tampa City Council member Mary Alvarez, whose husband, Manny, is friendly with Greco, agrees.
"He did a great job. He brought in a lot of development for the city. It was a good time for him, but I think that time is gone," she said.
Alvarez wonders if he would win. "I wouldn't want to see him hurt," she said.
Retired business owner George Levy said he told Greco, his friend for nearly 60 years, that he shouldn't count on him for campaign help. "I'm too old for politics," Levy said.
In the highly competitive 2003 mayor's race, Pam Iorio raised $463,000 and Frank Sanchez totaled $891,000.
In about six months, when the back surgery is well behind him and the election is closer, Greco said he'll do some serious soul searching to decide if he wants to take another shot at being mayor.
"I love it, and there's probably nothing I would rather do in the world," he said, but adds: "I've got to ask myself, 'Well, can you really?' "
Greco keeps busy, with days that begin at 7 a.m. and end no earlier than midnight. He lunches with elected officials and business leaders, gives speeches, attends parties and special events. He is also renovating a condo on Bayshore Boulevard and opening a consulting office on Harbour Island.
For now, he carries in his wallet a slip of paper from a fortune cookie he got a few weeks ago after dinner at a Chinese restaurant with his wife. It reads: "Mayor."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.