TAMPA — Tampa's politically influential police union reversed itself Thursday and made a surprise endorsement of Bob Buckhorn in the Tampa mayor's race.
The Tampa Police Benevolent Association had endorsed former Mayor Dick Greco before the March 1 primary. That endorsement was based on a vote of union officers, the first time the union had used that method to decide which mayoral candidate to support.
When Greco placed third in the primary, failing to advance, the union said it was not going to endorse a candidate in the March 22 runoff.
But "our association has been receiving a number of calls and personal contacts from our police officers asking us to re-consider an endorsement for Bob Buckhorn," union president and Detective Greg Stout said in a news release Thursday.
"Yesterday, our board of directors was polled and an overwhelming majority voted to endorse Bob as the next mayor of Tampa," Stout added. "Bob Buckhorn has a long history of support for public safety in the city of Tampa and after further consideration we believe Bob will be the best choice to lead our city into the future."
The endorsement came as the campaign took on a much more personal and harsher edge.
In a new ad, Ferlita attacks Buckhorn's business experience and credentials.
And a new third-party mailer from a Tampa group called Less Government Now attacked Ferlita as, among other things, "unsure" and "unelectable."
Less Government Now, which targeted Ferlita in another flier mailed before the primary, has an address on S Howard Avenue in Tampa.
Its treasurer, Tracy Cintron, 34, a Democrat, did not return a call for comments Thursday night.
Also on Thursday, Buckhorn's campaign released a poll showing him leading Ferlita 44 to 38 percent, with 18 percent undecided, according to the telephone survey of 300 likely city voters by Frederick Polls of Arlington, Va.
Buckhorn's poll came out the day after a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce released a poll showing Ferlita in the lead.
Buckhorn's poll was conducted March 3-6 for the Buckhorn campaign and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.
The poll shows Buckhorn and Ferlita splitting the vote evenly in two areas: South Tampa voters and Greco voters.
South Tampa's higher-than-average turnout increasingly plays a critical role in determining the outcome of Tampa's elections.
Elsewhere in the city, the poll showed Buckhorn leading by 8 points in West Tampa, 6 points in northern and New Tampa and 38 points in downtown and largely black east Tampa.
It also showed Buckhorn with unspecified "large leads," according to his campaign, among voters who had supported Thomas Scott and Ed Turanchik, both of whom have since endorsed Buckhorn, in the March 1 primary.
In what is officially a nonpartisan race, the poll suggests that Democrat Buckhorn and Republican Ferlita enjoy the support of most registered voters from their own parties.
Democrats favored Buckhorn 52 to 29 percent. Republicans supported Ferlita 54 to 35 percent.
Independents split 33 to 29 percent in Buckhorn's favor.
Party registration of undecided voters was nearly 3-to-1 Democratic over Republican, according to the pollster, which Buckhorn's campaign welcomed as a good omen.
But a Ferlita campaign consultant said he doubted the truthfulness of the poll.
"I find Bob's release of the poll so contradictory to the 10-point lead that the chamber poll gave Ferlita," consultant Anthony Pedicini said. "It smacks of desperation."
On Wednesday, the chamber poll showed Ferlita at 43 percent to Buckhorn's 33 percent among likely city voters, with 24 percent undecided.
Hamilton Campaigns, which generally works for Democrats, surveyed 300 registered voters who said they are likely to vote in the runoff. The poll was conducted March 2-6 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.