TAMPA — Nearly halfway into his four-year term, Mayor Bob Buckhorn is becoming better known, and increasingly people like what they see.
In a poll for the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News, 81 percent of respondents rated Buckhorn's job performance as average, good or excellent — up from 66 percent in 2011.
Moreover, the number of respondents who rated Buckhorn's performance as good or excellent rose from 39 to 49 percent over the past year.
By comparison, a Times poll in 2010, as Pam Iorio was wrapping up eight years in the mayor's office, found 52 percent who said she did a good or excellent job.
Also encouraging this year: Nearly three out of four of those polled say Tampa is headed in the right direction, while 18 percent said it's on the wrong track.
"I am more excited about the fact that 71 percent of the people you polled think that the city's moving in the right direction," Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn, 54, took office April 1, 2011. His term ends in March 2015, and although he has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2014, he says his future is in Tampa.
"I've always operated on the premise that if you take care of your job, the politics will take care of itself," he said. "Two years from now when I run for re-election I'm going to be judged on what I accomplish."
Braun Research of Princeton, N.J., called 300 randomly selected Tampa area adults from Dec. 5-13 for the poll. Its margin of error is 5.7 percent.
One sign that Buckhorn is becoming better-known: the percentage of people who say they are undecided about him dropped from 23 to 12 percent over the past year.
The poll also saw Buckhorn's job performance ratings rise on his handling of:
• The Tampa Bay Rays, where his "very'' and "somewhat satisfied'' ratings rose from 53 to 60 percent. Buckhorn would love to see the Rays build a stadium in downtown Tampa, but in 2012 he was less outspoken than in 2011, when he told St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, "I'm not going to be the boyfriend in your divorce."
• Downtown redevelopment — a signature issue — where the percentage of those who said they were very or somewhat satisfied with Buckhorn's performance rose from 59 to 75 percent from 2011 to 2012.
In the past year, Buckhorn has unveiled his InVision Tampa plan to guide the growth of downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. He successfully lobbied for $10.9 million in federal funds to finish the Riverwalk, is working to bring a restaurant to Water Works Park and to redevelop 140 acres on the western bank of the Hillsborough River.
Buckhorn's focus on downtown encourages Michael Rodriguez, who lives in Forest Hills but is thinking of moving closer to downtown.
"I happen to be an extremely big fan because I like what he's doing downtown," said Rodriguez, 46, who works in maintenance for Hillsborough County. "I like the energy he's brought to the community."
Even residents inclined to be skeptical give Buckhorn credit for not making major mistakes — yet.
William LaPene of Seminole Heights voted for Buckhorn's opponent, former County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, but says he would consider voting for Buckhorn if he ran again.
"Bob really hasn't done bad," LaPene said. "He hasn't given away the farm."
That said, LaPene said the city is on the wrong track and needs to focus more on quality of life improvements that would benefit current residents.
"I have two bikes, and I'd love to ride them a little bit more, but there's nowhere to go where I'm not taking my life in my hands," he said.
What Tampa doesn't need, he said, is more "brightly colored trinkets to bring people here."
"We don't need another fish farm downtown," he said, referring to the Florida Aquarium. And the city doesn't need to spend tax money — even downtown redevelopment funds that have to be spent in the urban core — on a new baseball stadium for the Rays.
"I have my own business here, and nobody's coming from the city or the county to give me money to support my endeavours," said LaPene, 61, who provides cosmetic restoration services to auto retailers and wholesalers.
Other residents, more intrigued by the possibility of a downtown stadium, give Buckhorn credit for not interfering in St. Petersburg.
"He seems to step lightly," said Hunter K. Hamrick, 54, a computer software consultant who lives in South Tampa.
Nearly two-thirds of those polled said Buckhorn did a good job of handling the Republican National Convention in August, but only 52 percent gave him similar ratings on mass transit, an issue he has talked about less.
"Part of that was because I had so much other stuff on the desk, particularly the RNC, to get through," Buckhorn said. "But transit is such a major, major lift for the community that we've got to start that discussion."
Buckhorn and other mayors are seeking to round up support in the Legislature to allow Florida's largest cities to opt out of the current requirement that sales tax referendums be countywide.
That could give Tampa a chance to hold its own transit referendum. In 2010, a countywide transit tax proposal failed in unincorporated Hillsborough County even as it won support inside the city.
Educator Kathryn Robinson said she would support such an initiative.
"It's ridiculous that in a city the size of Tampa we don't have better public transportation," said Robinson, 60, who lives on Davis Islands. "I applaud his efforts in trying to get something moving."