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John Romano: Who came out ahead in St. Pete mayoral debate?

It was billed as a debate.

I prefer to think of it as a job interview.

Oh, there were a handful of debate-like disagreements. There was even a snippy exchange or two.

But for the most part, the St. Petersburg mayoral candidates at the Palladium Theater on Tuesday night pushed similar agendas (job creation, Midtown growth), voiced identical concerns (education, chronic homelessness) and tried to appeal to the same voters ("Pssst, the Lens stinks, pass it on.'') for 60 minutes.

In the end, it felt more like three job candidates ingratiating themselves to a hiring committee of 162,000. So who gave the best performance?

The answer, of course, is completely subjective. A candidate could have scratched an armpit while spitting on the floor and certain supporters will still spin it as a victory.

The real target audience is folks who haven't made up their minds. And polls suggest there are enough of those undecided voters to keep the Aug. 27 primary interesting.

For the time being, Mayor Bill Foster is looking like the leader and that's probably the way it should be. You can quibble about his first-term performance, but he has shown he can at least keep the city from driving off a bridge.

And that means Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman have the burden of proving they would do a better job.

It's just one opinion, but I'd say Ford failed rather spectacularly. I'm not sure Kriseman pulled it off, but he definitely kept himself in the game.

Naturally, you might see it differently.

You might like how Ford took a strong stance on the police department (she wants new leadership), how she questioned the feasibility of light rail, and the passionate way she talked about low-income children getting the same opportunities as others.

But as a candidate who is perceived to have lost two prior elections because of her temperament, Ford did the one thing she absolutely could not afford to do: She looked petty and vindictive when trying to embarrass Kriseman about an obscure, long-ago dispute concerning sensitivity training on the City Council.

This has been a pattern in Ford's previous mayoral bids. She starts off strong and has a solid base of supporters but seems to turn off undecided voters the longer the campaign continues.

As for Kriseman, he sometimes sounds too rehearsed and a bit vague. His best moments were off-the-cuff shots at both Foster and Ford.

Now you can't base an entire campaign on digs at your opponents, but Kriseman needs to be more precise about why his administration would be an improvement.

Which brings us to Foster.

Six months ago, the mayor was confident he would win based on his first-term accomplishments. He's still running on his track record, but he's sounding more and more defensive about his job performance.

He's so sensitive to criticism he tried to say his position on the Rays stadium situation has not evolved. His motivation, I suppose, is not to appear wishy-washy.

That's ridiculous. Foster's position has clearly changed, if not 180 degrees then pretty darn close. Instead of running away from that, he needs to explain it and own it.

Of course, you may have seen the evening from a completely different vantage point, and there's nothing wrong with that.

When it's all over, everyone will have a voice in this hire.

John Romano: Who came out ahead in St. Pete mayoral debate? 08/06/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 11:06pm]
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