TAMPA — Former Mayor Dick Greco has a narrow lead in his quest to win a fifth term as Tampa's mayor, but nearly a third of voters are undecided, according to a St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 poll.
The poll, done Feb. 9-15, shows Greco with 24 percent and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita in second place with 20 percent. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points, so Ferlita could be tied with or even a bit ahead of Greco.
Thirty percent of those polled said they were undecided about the mayor's race. More women (34 percent) than men (25 percent) said they had yet to make a decision.
"What happens in those last days is going to matter a lot," pollster Paul Braun said. "This kind of result sort of tells me that there are a lot of people who aren't going to make up their minds, some of them, until they're walking into the booth."
Braun Research of Princeton, N.J., conducted 600 telephone interviews with registered city of Tampa voters who said they definitely plan to vote in the March 1 election.
Former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn was in third place with 14 percent, followed by former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik with 8 percent and City Council Chairman Thomas Scott with 4 percent.
If no candidate wins a majority, the top two finishers will go to a runoff on March 22. Asked who their second choice would be, voters sorted out the candidates differently, with Greco last. Buckhorn had 22 percent, followed by Ferlita at 19 percent, Turanchik at 12 percent, Scott at 11 percent and Greco at 10 percent.
Several factors suggest there could be a ceiling on how high Greco's numbers could go, Braun said. First, he has held the job before and presumably has good name recognition. But he is named as a first choice by more voters younger than 55 (27 percent) than those 55 and older (19 percent). That suggests to Braun that voters who remember his previous terms as mayor may be less inclined to support him.
That, plus the fact that relatively fewer voters named Greco as their second choice, could provide an opening for Buckhorn, Ferlita or Turanchik, Braun said. He said a key could be whether anyone distinguishes himself or herself on the issue that voters care the most about: the economy.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction. Asked to rank issues that are "very important" in the mayor's race, 87 percent said jobs and economic development, 78 percent said crime, 69 percent said taxes and 59 percent said cutting city expenses.
Panhandling was seen as very important by only 44 percent of respondents, less than mass transit, named by 49 percent. A mere 18 percent ranked baseball as very important.
As early voting started Saturday, candidates worked polling places in the hopes of picking up those undecided voters.
"My campaign is going extremely well," gaining volunteers while running out of yard signs, Greco said as he toured polling places with a busload of supporters. He said he was not surprised about the high number of undecided voters and hoped that everyone would scrutinize each candidate closely.
Buckhorn said the poll showed him exactly where he thought he was, but with "huge room to grow." He said recent debates, endorsements and other campaign developments "take a while to reverberate out there."
"We've sensed a lot of movement in our direction in the last two weeks," Buckhorn said. "With the undecideds that high and with me as the second option, I think there's a big upside for me."
Turanchik likewise said he thinks "the undecideds are breaking toward us, heavily, disproportionately so," as the result of recent endorsements, debates and direct mail pieces.
"I do believe that the numbers have changed dramatically in 10 days," Turanchik said. He said his campaign commissioned an exit poll at a South Tampa early voting station. Interviews with 121 voters on Saturday showed him in first place with 33.8 percent of the vote, followed by Buckhorn at 23 percent and Ferlita and Greco each with 21.5 percent, he said.
Scott said the election will hinge on turnout, and predicted that he would make the runoff.
Ferlita did not respond to calls to her cell phone and campaign headquarters or to a text message requesting comment.
Interviews with a half-dozen voters who took part in the Times-Bay News 9 poll suggested a love-hate relationship with Greco.
His supporters adore him.
"Greco did good," said 74-year-old Evelyn Canzenza, a retired teacher and lifelong Tampa resident who has known the former mayor for decades. "I was proud of him. And that's why I'm going to vote for him again."
Others, not so much.
"His ideas are old. His style is old," said John Langel, 67, a retired insurance executive. "I don't think he has recognized the fact that Tampa has changed a great deal."
Langel, who is leaning toward voting for Buckhorn, considers the mayoral hopefuls to be a better-than-average bunch.
"Any one of the candidates would not be horrible, even Greco," Langel said.
Some residents were less confident.
Annie Hipson, 63, rattled off her concerns: Buckhorn? Too smooth. Greco? Too development-happy. Ferlita and Scott? Not enough substance. Turanchik? A bit unrealistic.
"So many choices, so few outstanding people," said Hipson, a retired social services worker. "I'll just have to wait until the very end."
Laurel Olajide, a 29-year-old event planner, is still reeling from the November elections.
She thought Gov. Rick Scott had good ideas, but then disagreed with his decision last week to reject federal funding for high-speed rail. She wonders if the mayoral candidates will similarly disappoint.
"Everything sounds good enough to listen to," she said, but it's hard to choose "not being sure if they're going to stick with their decisions or their comments."
Donald Conrad, a 73-year-old retired Army captain, has narrowed down his choice to Buckhorn or Ferlita. He likes that Buckhorn helped prevent the closing of MacDill Air Force Base and that Ferlita is a homegrown politician who "knows the territory."
Then there's Cindy Caske, who doesn't like Buckhorn at all.
"I never have. There's just something about him I don't trust," said Caske, a 45-year-old elementary school art teacher.
Her gut tells her Ferlita is the best choice, she said.
"I just feel like she's going to be more honest about things than anybody else," Caske said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.