TAMPA — Before launching his campaign for mayor last spring, Bob Buckhorn was a three-time loser written off by much of Tampa's political establishment.
He had lost the primary for a state House seat in 1992. He finished third in a race for mayor in 2003. And he lost a 2004 County Commission race to Brian Blair, best known as a professional wrestler who bounded about in skin-tight, black and yellow briefs.
The conventional wisdom was that Bob Buckhorn couldn't close the deal in a big race. He was too nakedly ambitious. Too sanctimonious. Too fake.
"They thought he was finished, done with, put a fork in him," says veteran City Council member Charlie Miranda, one of Tampa's savviest pols.
Yet as the sun rises this morning, Buckhorn, 52, is about to replace outgoing Mayor Pam Iorio, courtesy of a 63 percent to 37 percent victory over former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita.
Talk about comebacks: Miranda says Buckhorn is no less than Tampa's version of Tommy John, the major league pitcher who came back from an elbow injury so devastating no one ever thought he'd pitch again.
To win this race, Buckhorn out-polled three established politicians who had never lost an election: Ferlita, former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik and four-time Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, whom Buckhorn edged out in the March 1 primary by less than 400 votes.
"To his credit," Miranda says, "he ran a flawless campaign."
But not an inevitable one. After the losses in 2003 and 2004, Buckhorn said he was ready to start a new chapter, one that didn't include elective office.
"There were a lot of days when I thought I had served this community . . . and I would just have to find different ways to serve," he says.
For a few years, he turned his attention to his work as a political consultant while taking his young daughters to swimming and soccer practice.
But he stayed close to the game.
Always a student of local politics, he watched what leaders in up-and-coming cities like Nashville and Memphis were doing. At the same time, raising his daughters made Buckhorn more mature, others say. Even he says it made him less irritating.
One rival who did not see Buckhorn as a pushover was Ferlita, according to former Tampa mayor and longtime mentor Sandy Freedman.
"At a birthday party a little more than a year ago, she said to me, 'I heard that Bob's going to run. Can't you keep him out of the race?' " Freedman said.
While some friends tried to discourage him from running again, none was surprised that he was ready for another go.
"He's got a lot of toughness and perseverance," said David Weinstein, a local attorney and Buckhorn's martial arts instructor for five years. "Bob is the kind of guy who never took a backward step, hung in there tough even with fighters who were bigger and stronger and more experienced. It's not that he won all the time. He didn't. But he wasn't afraid."
While out of office, Buckhorn stayed in touch with many of the people he met as a top aide to Freedman and as a two-term City Council member.
And he stayed in close touch with black churches in east Tampa, attending their Sunday services about once a month. Buckhorn said he has continued to go for 20 years because he made close friends in those churches, and he didn't want to be known as someone who only came around the black community just before election time.
By the time he began thinking about running two years ago, he had a new perspective on what parents want for their children.
Acquaintances say that made him a stronger candidate.
"The fact is, Bob has learned from past losses, and his growth as a person makes him even more appealing as a candidate this time around," said Iorio, who gave Buckhorn's candidacy a huge boost when she endorsed him in the runoff.
During the campaign, Buckhorn also picked up momentum at three critical points.
The first came in the summer, when Tampa's politically active firefighters union endorsed his candidacy well before the field was set. It gave him instant credibility and a ready base of campaign volunteers.
The second came in a live televised debate sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9. Greco stumbled after likening Tampa's civil rights-era race riots to a panty raid. Others turned in mixed performances. But Buckhorn was confident, focused and clear, and people noticed.
The third turning point was the primary itself, when Buckhorn edged out Greco for second place. After that, money, endorsements and support of Tampa's political elite, once doubtful, flowed back to Buckhorn en masse.
Buckhorn also enjoyed one other advantage. He was not the first choice for many voters, but often he was the second, and that helped once he got in the runoff.
"I listened, and I said, if there's a second choice, it's definitely Bob," said influential Tampa banker and philanthropist David A. Straz Jr., who started as one of Greco's top fundraisers but will now head Buckhorn's transition team.
Straz wasn't alone.
A Times-Bay News 9 poll before the primary found that Buckhorn was the candidate most often named as voters' second choice in the race for mayor.
"The next best of the leftover candidates" is the way voter and former Turanchik supporter Sheila Gobes-Ryan, 51, put it Tuesday.
What ultimately made him good enough to win, Buckhorn said, was losing.
"I didn't fear losing, because I've felt losing," he says. "I know what it feels like, and I know it doesn't kill me. So when you really have no fear of losing, it changes your perspective."
Times staff writer Jack Nicas contributed to this report.