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From house parties to billboards, a look at the ways St. Petersburg mayoral candidates are trying to reach voters

ST. PETERSBURG — Deveron Gibbons already has pushed nearly $52,000 into television advertising.

And Scott Wagman has pumped more than $25,000 into an Internet campaign.

The expenditures — which are just a fraction of what the two St. Petersburg mayoral candidates have spent overall — are substantial by themselves.

But consider this: Combined, they are more than any other candidate has spent in total this campaign, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of spending in the mayoral race.

The question almost two weeks before the Sept. 1 primary is how effectively the dollars are being spent.

"I'm really enjoying seeing how the top two money-getters are spending their money," said Bill Foster, who has raised $74,121 compared with Wagman's $237,901 and Gibbons' $173,370. "I'm anxious to see how effective it is in St. Petersburg. You can be sure a lot of campaign consultants are studying this to see where to go in future elections."

What the money buys

Gibbons, 36, has been airing television ads for more than a month featuring his endorsement from Gov. Charlie Crist. He launched a second ad last week with appearances by former state Sen. Jim Sebesta and state Sen. Dennis Jones.

Gibbons has spent almost $20,000 on yard signs. By comparison, lawyer Kathleen Ford and businessman Larry Williams have spent only about $22,000 each for the entire campaign.

Wagman, meanwhile, will launch his first television advertisement starting today.

The former owner of a paint manufacturing company, Wagman, 56, already has distributed more direct mail pieces than other candidates and is the only candidate with a robust Web-based campaign.

Wagman is advertising on the New York Times Web site, the social networking site Facebook and, until recently, Google. He has loaned his campaign $140,000.

"Scott, his Web presence has been extremely important," said Hal Freedman, who ran the successful campaign against a waterfront baseball stadium last year that included a Web component. "He's reaching a younger group in particular."

Wagman campaign consultant Mitch Kates said, for instance, that Web traffic to videos about crime helped guide Wagman to press more about crime at traditional events.

Foster, who has raised the third-most money, said he is planning a television ad to air sometime before the primary.

So is Williams.

"I'm sticking to the things that have traditionally worked in St. Petersburg," said Foster, 46, a lawyer and former City Council member. "Conventional wisdom is TV buys aren't that effective. Social networking — I have no idea. I'm anxious to see how that works out."

Foster also is employing the traditional techniques: campaign mailers and automated phone calls. He recently paid for calls from the head of the local Police Benevolent Association, which has endorsed him.

Williams has shied away so far from the direct mail pieces that typically have been the hallmark of municipal campaigns.

Williams, who owns a diagnostic imaging business, ran for mayor in 2001 and finished third in the primary.

"I don't believe mailers do too much other than people picking something up," Williams, 64, said. "If I get a mailer at home, seldom do I read it."

Almost all of the money Ford, 52, who also ran for mayor in 2001, has spent has been for mail pieces, signs and other printed materials.

Chalk and talk

Along with cash, candidates are employing low-cost techniques to reach voters.

Jamie Bennett has mixed his large-ticket items — three billboards in the city and a direct mail piece targeted to absentee voters — with a night of pouring drinks at the Independent bar in downtown St. Petersburg.

He also is paying a man a small fee to chalk downtown St. Petersburg sidewalks with Bennett-for-mayor messages.

Bennett has raised more money than both Ford and Williams, but has less left to spend.

Bennett said he is planning a final mail piece to reach key voters before the primary.

"A lot of people are very surprised there's a race going on," said Bennett, 57. "We live in this bubble. We think everyone knows what's going on. It's not necessarily true."

For all the money the Wagman campaign is spending, his campaign manager says it is the 50-or-so house parties Wagman has attended that might make the most difference.

The parties, which can drag on for hours, allow Wagman to communicate directly with voters unfiltered and uninterrupted by the other candidates.

"You can't be successful if you only do one thing well," said Kates, the consultant. "You have to do many things well."

Other major campaigns are using traditional methods: campaigning door-to-door, relying on volunteers and word of mouth and waving signs at corners. Each talks about successes, though it's difficult to measure until votes are counted.

Retired lawyer Ed Helm, who ran for mayor in 2005, has asked his supporters to resurrect Helm signs from four years ago. Helm, 64, also has purchased an online advertisement at tampabay.com's political blog, Bay Buzz, and has started a series of meet-and-greets to interact with potential voters in a casual setting.

The other candidates — 47-year-old student Richard Eldridge, 52-year-old advocate for the homeless Paul Congemi and 60-year-old restaurateur John Warren — are relying primarily on free media and the three to four candidate forums each week to get their message out. Congemi is the only candidate without a Web site.

"We're doing a lot of things that are under the radar. Tons of things," said Wagman, who organized a campaign pub crawl Friday. "We're out in the community every day. Meeting people, meeting groups. We're trying to reach everyone."

by the numbers

Campaign expenditures

$6,415

Kathleen Ford spent on postage.

$1,746

Larry Williams spent buying campaign T-shirts.

$42.15

John Warren spent for a copy of the city budget.

$100

Bill Foster's billboard at the Northeast Little League.

$600

Scott Wagman paid the Florida Democratic Party for research.

$466.97

Paul Congemi's total campaign expenses.

On the Web

Follow the mayor's race at elections.tampabay.com.

Key dates

The primary is Sept. 1. The general election is Nov. 3.

From house parties to billboards, a look at the ways St. Petersburg mayoral candidates are trying to reach voters 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 9:14pm]
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