TAMPA — Voters to go the polls Tuesday to narrow the field in the most closely fought mayor's race in decades.
And with five experienced candidates on the ballot, the difference between making the runoff and going home could be a few hundred votes — or a few dozen.
So candidates started early on Monday.
"I've had enough café con leche for a month and a half," said Rose Ferlita, who hit the first of five coffee shops before 7 a.m.
Ferlita, along with Bob Buckhorn, Dick Greco, Thomas Scott and Ed Turanchik, are running to replace Mayor Pam Iorio, who is leaving because of term limits.
To win Tuesday, a candidate needs more than half the votes cast. If no one wins a majority, the two candidates with the most votes go to a March 22 runoff.
All seven City Council seats also are up for election, and voters will decide whether to offer a property tax break for new or expanding businesses.
Voter turnout in the last three city elections has averaged a little under 25 percent.
So far, about 8 percent of Tampa's 190,000 registered voters have voted early or cast absentee ballots. In 2007, those two categories of voting made up about 30 percent of all votes cast.
So turnout this year could be on a pace to hit what's been typical, 24 or 25 percent.
Or it could be higher. With a seriously contested mayor's race on the ballot, turnout might approach the 33 percent of the 2003 election, when Iorio emerged from a similarly competitive field.
"This is a real mayor's race, and that's what drives the turnout," said Scott Paine, a former City Council member and University of Tampa government professor.
Tuesday's forecast calls for clouds and a 40 percent chance of rain, probably around the middle of the day, Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay said. But it's not expected to rain hard enough to deter anyone determined to vote.
"Even if they're not determined, they should be able to make it," Clay said.
Monday afternoon, Turanchik's campaign had 20 people making telephone calls to voters, a significant number of whom had yet to decide, he said.
"There's still people making up their minds," Turanchik said. "I can't put a number to it. A rough guess would be there's more than 10 percent."
Also unclear is whether voters will be swayed by several last-minute negative attacks funded by third-party groups.
On Saturday, a flier featuring Iorio's photo showed up in voters' mailboxes, urging them to thank her "for cleaning up Dick Greco's mess."
Iorio disavowed the ad, which was sent by the Liberty Leadership Fund, whose return address is a Miami industrial park.
The fund was established Feb. 21, according to state Division of Elections records. Its treasurer, identified only as "R. Absher," possibly of Pinellas County, but with a Washington, D.C., telephone number, authorized several employees of Tidewater Consulting to submit electronic reports on behalf of the fund.
Tidewater is a political lobbying and campaign management firm with offices in Tallahassee and Jacksonville and strong ties to elected Republican officials throughout Florida. Its president, Richard Coates, is one of those authorized to submit reports on the committee's behalf. Neither he nor Absher returned calls for comment Monday.
Tampa's elections are non-partisan. Ferlita, the only Republican in the mayor's race, said she had nothing to do with the anti-Greco flier and was committed to keeping party politics out of city government.
That, however, did not stop a another Miami group, the Florida Future Leaders Fund, from mailing out a flier identifying Ferlita and Republican candidates in each City Council race.
Ferlita herself was the target of a third flier sent by a committee called Less Government Now, which has an address on S Howard Avenue in Tampa. Its treasurer, Tracy Cintron, 34, a Democrat, did not return a call for comment Monday.
Both Ferlita and Greco said the attacks would not change the way they campaigned.
"At the end of the day, we'll know what's what with all of us," said Greco, who disputed the flier's claims. "Right now, it's looking real good."
Along with the mayor's race, all seven City Council seats are up for election. With at least two incumbents, Scott and Gwen Miller, leaving the council, voters could thoroughly remake the elected leadership at City Hall.
Voters also will consider whether to offer property tax breaks to existing businesses that expand or new ones that move to Tampa.
The referendum is similar to one approved by Hillsborough County voters in November. City officials say creating the same incentives inside city limits will put Tampa on a competitive footing when it comes to recruiting companies.