ST. PETERSBURG — The stakes could not be higher today when the three major mayoral candidates take the stage for a televised debate.
With so many residents still undecided on who should lead City Hall, Mayor Bill Foster, Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford could win some votes by touting their visions for Florida's fourth-largest city.
Although more than 62,000 residents have requested mail-in ballots — the most ever for a city election — 51,000 have yet to be returned to the Pinellas County supervisor of elections.
The debate, "A Conversation with the Candidates," is scheduled for 7-8 p.m. at the Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College. The Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 are sponsoring the event. All tickets have been distributed.
Kriseman and Foster hope to reach more voters before the Aug. 27 primary.
"It really comes down to my message," Kriseman said. "I feel like I'm gaining momentum. My message is resonating with the community. This debate will give me the chance to get my message to a wider audience."
Foster stressed he is the "only one candidate with executive experience and a real record of achievements" since taking office in 2010.
"People love the growth and vitality of St. Petersburg, which occurred on my watch," he said. "My opponents have a credibility problem since they accomplished nothing during their years of service."
When asked about the debate, Ford focused on the format, which she dislikes.
"It's a very tightly scripted conversation with the candidates," she said. "There isn't much of an opportunity to share visions. There are differences in candidates. The time is very limited. This is the shortest response times I've ever seen."
Candidates will have from 30 seconds to one minute to answer each question. The moderators will give appropriate time for rebuttals, according to organizers.
The debate will be the third forum with all three major candidates.
Foster and Kriseman have sparred at three other events, but Ford did not attend because of work obligations.
Times political editor Adam Smith and Bay News 9 anchor Al Ruechel will moderate the debate, which will include a lightning round with several yes and no questions.
Voters can expect questions on neighborhoods, crime and red light cameras.
The most controversial topic on the campaign trail, the fate of the plan to replace the Pier with the project called the Lens, will also be discussed.
Foster is the frontrunner in several polls.
A recent Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/WUSF Radio poll showed Foster leading with 30 percent, followed by Ford with 20 and Kriseman with 17. The margin of error was 3.4 percentage points, and 28 percent of voters were undecided.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.