ST. PETERSBURG — With two weeks remaining in the mayoral campaign, candidates Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster are virtually tied, with nearly a quarter of voters undecided, a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll shows.
Ford leads with 39 percent, followed by Foster with 34 percent, according to a poll of 608 registered St. Petersburg voters who said they definitely plan to vote in the Nov. 3 general election.
"If I were him, I would redouble my efforts, because any campaign wants to keep fighting when they are two points behind or more," said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and a political science professor who has closely monitored the election.
The poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday by Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Ford, a Democrat who would become the city's first female strong mayor, fared better among white residents, those over 55 years of age, Democrats, independents and women.
Foster, a Republican, scored higher with black residents and Republicans.
The candidates, both lawyers and former City Council members, fared equally among males and voters 54 and younger.
Ford, 52, has ruffled feathers with her frequent criticisms of City Hall and plain speak.
Her supporters overwhelmingly said they valued her knowledge of the issues and policy ideas. Fifteen percent cited a dislike for Foster as the most important reason they were supporting Ford.
Foster, 46, is the establishment candidate who has campaigned as a "uniter" who thinks the city needs only some tweaks.
His supporters pointed to his leadership skills and experience on the City Council. Nine percent cited their dislike of Ford as the most important reason they were backing Foster.
Foster said he was perplexed why voters were rallying to Ford because of her positions.
"I may be biased, but when it comes to knowledge and ideas, my opponent fails in comparison," he said. "People aren't receiving that message. I have to do a better job."
Twenty-four percent of people said they were still undecided, with black voters the most uncommitted.
"It's hard to get into politics," said Rick Robertson, 49, a black voter uneasy with both candidates. He said he found Foster's Christian conservative beliefs off-putting and knew little about Ford.
Ford and Foster have become increasingly critical of each other in recent days, with Ford attacking Foster's scientific views and Foster repudiating Ford's temperament.
But these attacks did not seem to resonate as much with voters as the candidates' ideas and resumes.
Asked whether Foster's belief that the earth was created in six literal days and that, contrary to the views of most scientists, dinosaurs and humans lived on the earth at the same time, 39 percent of voters said this concerned them a lot or some. Fifty-nine percent said his beliefs concerned them a little or not at all.
"I don't know what she is talking about, the science thing. Some of us just aren't very scientific," said Gwen Corn, 64, a black voter who is undecided. "If you are going to run the city, you need to come up with a better issue than that."
Ford declined to say whether the poll results mean she should soften her focus on Foster's religious beliefs.
"I've been stressing other topics," she said. "We know that jobs are important and we need to position the city of St. Petersburg so all of our children can succeed."
Foster said his religious views are not a legitimate campaign issue. "My faith has nothing to do with my belief in the importance of science and technology."
Voters were slightly more concerned about Ford's behavior as a council member, which has been described as rude or condescending to fellow council members and city staff. Fifty-two percent said Ford's demeanor concerned them some or a lot; 47 percent said it was of little or no concern.
Resident Jean Johnson, 86, voted by mail for Ford three weeks ago.
She said she was concerned about Foster's refusal to support St. Pete Pride and his creationist beliefs. Ford's temperament somewhat troubled Johnson, but ultimately she decided Ford's opposition to a new baseball stadium would best serve the city.
"Because of this economic situation, I don't think we should be thinking in terms of a new stadium for the Rays. As much as I want them and important as I think they are, I think we need to live within our means," Johnson said. "Why spend millions of dollars when we've got something that is usable?"
Voter Fred Kennedy, 47, supported former council member Larry Williams in the primary and now plans to vote for Foster.
Foster "is the lesser of two evils," Kennedy said. "I see mainly that Kathleen Ford was divisive on easy votes when she was on council. She was always the odd person out."
Foster said he felt validated by the poll results and would continue to point out the differences between his demeanor and Ford's.
Ford, who dismissed concerns about her temperament, has said she asked probing questions because she's a tough fiscal steward.
A majority of voters, or 59 percent, said the city was headed in the right direction compared with 24 percent who thought St. Petersburg was on the wrong track.
The poll showed voters were more pleased with local political leaders than they had expressed in the past.
Fifty-nine percent rated Mayor Rick Baker's job performance as good or excellent, up 4 percentage points from a similar June poll.
Bill Wright, 53, said he is voting for Foster because he will continue Baker's policies. "Foster seems about continuity to me," he said.
The survey tried to mirror the demographic makeup of St. Petersburg's 157,826 registered voters. The data were weighted to reflect age, gender and race.
More than 12,300 voters have already cast ballots early by mail, according to the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.