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Your guide to tonight's debate

St. Petersburg's 10 candidates for mayor will assemble for one of the final times before the Sept. 1 primary at 7 tonight for a televised forum sponsored by St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9. With so many voters still undecided, the stakes could not be higher. Here are some things to watch for:

Without a solid frontrunner, will anyone stand out? A candidate has yet to truly distinguish himself or herself as the obvious successor to Mayor Rick Baker. Many candidates are complimentary of Baker and promise to continue many of his initiatives. But it's hard to say you're for the status quo and stand out as an innovator. By the same token, according to a recent Times poll, many voters say they think the city is on the right track. Will someone like attorney Kathleen Ford or retired attorney Ed Helm, who have criticized the Baker administration, openly advocate for changing the Baker way?

Be prepared for some big ideas, but listen for how they're going to pay for it. Former business owner Scott Wagman wants to add 100 police officers in his first term, and Ford says she'll chop the city's property tax rate 8.5 percent. Will they explain where the money will come from?

Can some candidates cut out the jargon and show some energy? The knock on Ford and Bill Foster, both attorneys and former council members, is that they sometimes get caught up in government parlance and legal speak. The knock on business owner Larry Williams is that his quiet, monotone delivery can suck the life out of an answer, no matter its content.

Will the candidates challenge their opponents? Candidates have too often failed to fight back at the time right time. Williams, who owns and runs a diagnostic imaging company with offices in St. Petersburg and three other cities, should speak up when Wagman claims he's the only one in the field to run a successful company. If business executive Deveron Gibbons attacks the four former and current City Council members by suggesting they've done little to rid the city of its ills, someone should point out that Gibbons helped run the campaigns for the current mayor, Rick Baker. Surely, Gibbons would have had the mayor's ear if he had an idea.

The first-time candidates have to show their government chops. While Ford and Foster need to tone down the government rhetoric, talking a little shop would help first time candidates Gibbons and Wagman.

Platforms and platitudes. In nearly four months of candidate forums, Ford has been among the best in talking about specific details. Gibbons, meanwhile, has relied more on personal stories. City Council member Jamie Bennett has tried to take credit for much that has happened in city in the past eight years. Will candidates alter their styles for a broader audience?

Focus. Timed debates tend to confuse candidates, who aren't equipped at answering a question in 60 seconds. Will they stay on point? Or get lost mid message? These candidates have done this enough that they shouldn't be getting cut off in mid thought by a red light.

Format. The forum, moderated by Times political editor Adam Smith and Bay News 9 anchor Al Ruechel, will include a lightning round with several yes and no questions. Will the candidates actually answer questions about the Tampa Bay Rays or crime? Or will they hedge?

St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 "Conversation with the candidates"

There are no more tickets available to see the forum in person at 7 tonight at the the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N. But you can watch it live on Bay News 9 or follow a live blog at blogs.tampabay.com/baybuzz. Replays will start Thursday on Bright House Networks Channel 342.

Your guide to tonight's debate 08/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 1:11am]

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