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Ford, Foster lead mayoral pack, according to new poll

ST. PETERSBURG — Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster have emerged as frontrunners in the St. Petersburg mayor's race, according to a new poll that puts the two lawyers and former council members in a statistical tie for first place in the crowded field of 10.

Ford garnered support of 22 percent and Foster got 21 percent of 400 registered city voters in a poll commissioned by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

Deveron Gibbons and Scott Wagman were essentially tied for third place, with 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Roughly 23 percent of voters said they were still undecided. The poll, conducted Monday, has a margin of error of 3 to 3.5 percent.

"People are obviously making up their minds about the candidates," said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "With this amount of time left, it looks like it is down to these top four candidates."

The results are a far cry from the indecision expressed by voters less than two months ago, when a St. Petersburg Times poll found 61 percent of voters did not have a preferred candidate.

Ford, Foster, Gibbons and Wagman have all since made significant gains.

Ford and Foster saw the most growth. Her support grew by 12 percentage points; his grew by 13 points.

Wagman's campaign also seemed to be gaining momentum. His base grew by 6 percentage points.

Gibbons, however, carved out only 2 percent more.

For months, political observers have questioned whether the first-time candidates' bulging bank accounts could push them into the general election.

Gibbons, a corporate executive, and Wagman, a real estate investor, have far outpaced their opponents in fundraising and spending. For example, Wagman has accumulated $237,901, including a $140,000 personal loan. Foster's campaign kitty stands at $74,121.

Foster and Ford both attributed their success to organized volunteer efforts and robust campaign platforms. Neither viewed the poll results as an opportunity to slow down.

"No one is going to buy this," said Foster, 46. "This is how you do it: ground game, ground game."

Ford, 52, came in second place in the 2001 race against Mayor Rick Baker.

"Folks know me and they trust me," she said. "This is not the time for someone people don't know."

The four frontrunners were among the first candidates to enter the race. The poll shows the remaining six candidates have a long journey if they hope to win one of the top two spots in the Sept. 1 primary.

Business owner Larry Williams, 64, received 6 percent of the vote, up from four percent in June. Council member Jamie Bennett, 57, got 5 percent of the vote, up from 3 percent. Retired lawyer Ed Helm, 64, and restaurateur John Warren, 60, each received 1 percent.

"It's down to two weeks of hard work," said Williams. "I am not discouraged."

He plans to start airing as many as three different television ads starting today or Thursday.

"There are still six horses in the race and I believe I am going to get there and if I get there, I am going to win," he said. "Assuming my ads are good and people see them and they get that fuzzy feeling, I think that would help."

Wagman openly questioned the accuracy of the poll results.

"It's a very small sample," he said.

Still, he said, he plans to sharpen his campaign message over the next few days.

"I'm the executive officer that will make the changes that we need," he said. "The mayor is the chief executive … . City Council doesn't teach you how to do that."

Gibbons, 36, did not respond to a request for comment. Shortly after the poll results were published Tuesday, his campaign sent out a message to supporters on Facebook announcing a Saturday morning rally.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Know Your Candidates

A guide to the candidates for mayor and City Council is at elections.tampabay.com.

Ford, Foster lead mayoral pack, according to new poll 08/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 9:18am]

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