Mayor Bill Foster is vulnerable, and as early, mail-in voting gets under way, keep an eye on the underdog, Rick Kriseman.
The St. Petersburg mayor, of course, must be pleased to be leading the field in our new mayoral poll. But with seven in 10 city voters preferring to replace him in November, Foster looks like anything but a formidable incumbent.
Absentee ballots should start reaching more than 60,000 voters any day now, and more than half the votes are likely to be cast before the actual primary day of Aug. 27. The real question is whether Kathleen Ford or Rick Kriseman will emerge to face Foster in the runoff, this poll suggests.
Conventional wisdom had it that this was likely to be another Foster vs. Ford contest, that Kriseman's quiet campaign and lack of name recognition would never overcome the high profile of Ford, a two-time mayoral candidate and leading critic of the Lens proposal for the Pier.
Certainly, Ford seemed to feel that way, waging a play-it-safe campaign of repeatedly skipping joint appearances and debates with the other major candidates.
Goliath Davis, the former police chief and deputy mayor clearly still bitter about Mayor Foster firing him in 2011, apparently envisioned a Foster-Ford race too. He's an Anybody-But-Foster guy, and has all but endorsed Ford, a longtime critic who once publicly called Davis a liar and suggested he might be tipping off drug dealers.
Kriseman, though, is emerging as a serious contender and could prove to be a much more serious threat to Foster than Ford.
Ford, after all, has shown herself to be a stronger candidate in a crowded primary than in a two-person general election.
In 2001, she made it into the mayoral runoff only to lose to Rick Baker by more than 13 percentage points. Four years ago, she narrowly trailed Foster in the primary and wound up losing by more than 5 percentage points in the general election.
"It would be a mistake to underestimate the solid base of support she has to build on, especially with the Pier issue on the ballot," said lawyer Peter Wallace, a former state House speaker and a longtime friend of Ford's.
True. But former City Council member Ford still is recalled by many voters as a divisive and hot-headed force at City Hall. She could face the same ceiling of support that cost her the mayoral races of 2001 and 2009.
Kriseman argues that he's the stronger general election candidate and the logical choice for those wanting new leadership.
"We've seen Kathleen versus Bill before and we know how that comes out. Nothing's changed with either of them," Kriseman said. "If you're not happy with the current leadership and you want change, I'm the one."
Kriseman will never win a charisma award, but passion and excitement have never won elections in St. Pete. He is trying to introduce himself merely as a strong and safe alternative to Foster — a positive and pragmatic leader who worked well with former Mayor Rick Baker.
The former City Council member and state representative hasn't been on a citywide ballot since 2003, so he is less known than Ford or Foster but has time and resources to overcome that.
He has raised more money to date — about $110,000 — than anyone else, is already airing television ads, and is about to send mailers to voters. As of June 30, he had more than $80,000 in his campaign account, compared with $72,000 for Foster and less than $20,000 for Ford.
An Obama campaign veteran is helping Kriseman target voters, and though he and Ford are both Democrats, the state Democratic Party is helping Kriseman in the officially nonpartisan race. The party has spent more than $20,000 so far on Kriseman campaign staffers.
No incumbent has ever lost a mayoral election in St. Petersburg, and Foster is not exactly reviled. A plurality of voters in our poll rate his job performance as average.
It's way too early to count Foster out, just as it's too early to safely assume we know who will be taking him on in the general election.
Just ask Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. More than a month before Tampa's mayoral runoff in 2011, a Times poll found Buckhorn trailing in third place.
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.