The mixed advantages of incumbency appear to be giving Mayor David Fischer a slight lead over challenger Bill Klein, although a week before the general election, almost a quarter of voters apparently have yet to make up their minds.
A poll, conducted March 8-12 for the Times, shows Fischer with 43 percent of the vote. Klein, a retired general and business executive in his first run for elected office, has 33 percent, while 24 percent remain undecided.
If people who say they are "leaning" toward either candidate are included, Fischer's 10-point lead narrows to 8 points _ within the poll's margin of error.
These results are remarkably similar to a Times poll conducted four years ago toward the end of the campaign between Fischer and fired Police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger. And that election turned out much closer than the poll indicated: Fischer won with just 50.97 percent of the vote.
The high number of undecided voters, along with several other factors revealed in the poll, make this year's race difficult to predict.
All that considered, Fischer said Friday he was still happy to be slightly ahead, especially after finishing second in the Feb. 25 primary.
"I'm glad I'm at 43, not 33" percent, he said.
Klein said a recent poll conducted by his own campaign found similar results. "We've got to work hard. I've just got to keep plugging," he said.
Both sides predicted that the gap will narrow in the final days of the campaign, as each tries to target the undecided voters on whom the election will turn.
Interestingly enough, the moderately good feeling people have about St. Petersburg _ more than two-thirds think the city's quality of life is the same or better than four years ago _ hasn't translated into a strong mandate for Fischer. He's not any more popular than he was four years ago.
Fischer's supporters say that's because voters have not yet connected him to the city's successes. Klein's supporters, meanwhile, say their candidate gets stronger as people get to know him better.
One thing the poll makes clear: This election strikes people as less crucial to the future of St. Petersburg.
In the highly polarized contest between Fischer and Curtsinger, voter turnout was more than 53 percent, the highest in nearly four decades.
But in last week's poll, only 36 percent of those definitely planning to vote thought this election will make "a great deal of difference" in the city's future. That's substantially less than the 48 percent who thought so in the 1993 poll.
And twice as many _ 21 percent versus 11 percent _ think this year's election won't make much difference at all.
Still, Fischer's incumbency _ he has been St. Petersburg's chief executive for four years now _ has given him a much stronger profile than he enjoyed during the last election, when the city still operated under its old form of government. In 1993, Fischer had been mayor two years, but the top executive was a city manager appointed by the entire City Council.
Not surprisingly, Fischer has both higher positives and higher negatives this time around, the Times poll found.
Of those who say they intend to vote for Fischer, a much higher percentage say they are voting for him, rather than against his opponent, than did in 1993.
And of those who say they intend to vote for Klein, a much higher percentage say they are voting against Fischer than was true of Curtsinger's supporters.
In other words, if the last election defined Fischer as the anti-Curtsinger candidate, then this one features Klein as the anti-Fischer candidate.
Mary Repper, Fischer's campaign consultant, said she was especially encouraged by Fischer's higher base of positive support.
"Almost 80 percent of the people who are voting for him are doing it because they believe in Dave Fischer," she said. "That's a tremendous endorsement."
The higher negatives reflected among Klein's supporters she dismissed as the natural product of incumbency. "It's very difficult for a leader who has made strong decisions not to have made some enemies along the way," she said. "People either like what is happening, or they don't."
Randy Wedding, one of Klein's key advisers, agreed with that reasoning, up to a point.
"I think it's the way people perceive David," he said. "They perceive him as a nice guy. So far in this campaign, he's been fairly effective at letting the difficulties that occurred in his administration slide off of him. There's always a reluctance to turn the incumbent out of office. Better the devil we know . . .
"You've got to remember that the knock on Bill Klein at the first of January was nobody in this community knew him. And he still got 40 percent of the primary vote. That's pretty good for a guy who's only been in the arena little more than a month. I think it's clear that our mission is get more people to know Bill Klein.
"We're just working like crazy trying to get him to meet as many people as we can," Wedding added. "Because to know Bill is to love him."
Fischer hasn't enjoyed all the advantage of incumbency, however.
About a third of the people in the Times poll said St. Petersburg is a better place to live than it was four years ago. Another third thought it was about the same. These figures include a surprising number of black residents, considering the soul-searching controversy that followed two nights of racial unrest last fall. In fact, blacks are actually slightly more likely than whites to think St. Petersburg has gotten better.
But relatively few of either race are willing to give Fischer most of the credit, despite his recently sharpened campaign pitch that he is the person responsible for lowering the crime rate, raising property values, lowering taxes and bringing the city thousands of new jobs.
A far larger portion _ 70 percent _ think Fischer should get "some" of the credit.
Even those 21 percent who think St. Petersburg has gotten worse don't tend to blame Fischer most of all. Only 20 percent think the decline is mostly his fault, while 63 percent say he should get "some" of the blame.
Why haven't people's generally favorable impressions and the city's successes translated into an unstoppable re-election drive?
"I think candidly the disturbances were unsettling to people," said Fischer friend and adviser Rick Baker, referring to the two nights of violent protests that followed the city police shooting of a young black man during a traffic stop last fall.
"Dave has responded very well to the disturbances to try to make progress, but they're clearly unsettling. You can't deny that."
Campaign junkies both worship and fear opinion polls before an election. They can't resist a possible hint of the final result, but they also are wary of the unintended consequences on voter behavior.
Baker, for example, fears that Fischer fans who see him ahead may be less motivated to vote. Fischer himself said favorable polls last time made his campaign complacent _ and vulnerable to a sophisticated, race-baiting direct-mail campaign by Curtsinger in the last two or three days.
"We're not going to mess up this time," he said Friday.
And Wedding almost seemed to relish the notion of keeping Klein an underdog up till the election.
"Our posture has been from the get-go that we would need to run from behind and that we would run from behind right up to the end. I've seen many cases when the challenger has come out in the 40s (in percentage points) and taken the primary and almost right away fell back into a secondary position."
This is a convenient spin, but useful to the campaign in more ways than one.
The Times poll itself contains warnings that its results can only be taken so far.
More than half the 754 respondents claimed to have voted in the Feb. 25 primary, when in fact turnout was not quite 20 percent.
Similarly, two-thirds said they "definitely" planned to vote on March 25. If that happened, poll workers would be as surprised as if dogs showed up to vote.
Still, the task for each campaign is to try to capture that large block of undecided voters.
Who are they? Neither side professed to know, although it is clear that despite similarities in voter patterns between 1993 and the February primary, this election is considerably less polarized than the one four years ago.
Klein, who doesn't carry the same racially charged baggage of Curtsinger, is more attractive to both black and white voters.
And Fischer, while still enjoying strong support from blacks and well-to-do whites, cannot count on those constituencies alone.
In the Times poll, both black and white voters gave very high importance to issues such as crime, race relations, the police department, leadership and economic development. The only difference was that blacks tended to see each issue as even more important.
To attract the uncommitted, Wedding said Klein's biggest task is to get people to know and trust him personally.
Fischer's biggest task, said Baker and Repper, is to get voters to connect the mayor with the city's many successes.
And that, at least as far as what anyone will say publicly, is where this campaign is headed in its final week.
If the election for mayor of St. Petersburg were held today, would you vote for David Fischer or Bill Klein?
MAYOR DAVID FISCHER _ 43 PERCENT
CHALLENGER BILL KLEIN _ 33 PERCENT
UNDECIDED: 24 PERCENT
The race for mayor of St. Petersburg
Q Why do you favor this candidate? (top five reasons given by respondents)
63% Satisfied with performance
22% Political experience
22% Listens, thoughtful, calm
13% Good, honest man who cares
8% Neighborhood improvements
52% Strong leadership
45% Need a change
17% Improve the police department
13% Military background
Times Research Division
ABOUT THIS POLL
Telephone interviews conducted by Independent Market Research and Suncoast Opinion Surveys.
754 registered voters were interviewed; 516 white and 205 black.
Sampling error is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points for all respondents, 4.2 percentage points for those who say they will definitely vote.