With the election for Tampa mayor only two weeks away, Bob Buckhorn and Rose Ferlita face two very different challenges in tonight's live televised debate. Buckhorn has an opportunity to hammer home a compelling agenda that is fast attracting broad support. And Ferlita has one of her last, best chances to establish herself as mayoral material.
Buckhorn has been on a roll since winning a runoff spot in the first round of balloting March 1. Former rivals Tom Scott and Ed Turanchik — who together collected more than a quarter of the vote in the five-way race — have endorsed Buckhorn because of his ideas and attention to detail. The endorsements give a shot of momentum to the campaign, and expand Buckhorn's profile among young and black voters and with both progressives and the development community.
Buckhorn's clear agenda for managing the city, attracting jobs and industries and working with leaders across the region to raise the profile of Tampa Bay stands in sharp contrast to the near absence of any governing plan by Ferlita. Buckhorn needs to keep making the argument that he is the ideas candidate with the skills and experience to get things done. He also needs to keep sending a positive message; voters are responding to it in these tough economic times.
Ferlita entered the race eight months ago today, yet she is still rolling out only the sketchiest ideas for governing — even as early voting begins in less than a week for the March 22 election. There is no reason a candidate with 12 years of experience in city and county office cannot lay out a platform for running his or her native city. Her reluctance reveals a lack of self-confidence and leadership. To make an informed choice, voters deserve more transparency from Ferlita.
Tonight's debate, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9, offers Ferlita a game-changing moment. She needs to show how her administration and priorities would differ from Buckhorn's. Ferlita needs to take on directly why such a diverse field of local leaders is lining up behind Buckhorn. And she needs to show more of the warm side that her friends see in private. Voters want a mayor to be approachable, and the choice often boils down to having a comfort level with the person in charge.
It was clear last week that voters had not settled on a winner. Ferlita, Buckhorn and third-place finisher Dick Greco each polled in the mid 20 percents. Turanchik polled nearly 20 percent. Buckhorn and Ferlita should see this as a wide-open race, and one with few opportunities beyond tonight to deliver a commanding performance.