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Dead heat

With 1 in 3 voters undecided, front-runner Baker appears vulnerable to gains by Ford.

Rick Baker and Kathleen Ford are in a dead heat as they head into the final stretch of the mayor's race, with one in three voters still undecided, a St. Petersburg Times poll shows.

The telephone survey of 602 likely voters shows Baker with 36 percent support and Ford with 32 percent. That puts Baker's lead within the poll's margin of error and points to an unpredictable election where the long-anointed front-runner, Baker, looks vulnerable.

"This confirms what we've been saying from the beginning: that this is going to be a tight race," Baker said Thursday afternoon upon hearing the poll's results. "We're going to push as hard as we can on a grass-roots basis, on a media basis, out on the street every way we can in order to win this election."

Before Thursday night's mayoral forum at Lakewood High School, Ford asked to see the poll numbers. Before she looked, she was asked if she would comment on the Times poll, and Ford said no. She was then offered an opportunity to look at the poll results, and this time she declined.

At this point in Mayor David Fischer's race against challenger Bill Klein four years ago, a similar poll found Fischer ahead by 10 points, despite having just faced two nights of violent racial unrest on his watch. In 1993, Fischer led former police Chief Ernest Curtsinger by 11 points, and barely beat him a little over a week later.

African-American voters could once again be a crucial factor in picking St. Petersburg's next mayor.

Among black voters surveyed by Genesis/IMR of Tampa, 40 percent backed Baker and 17 percent Ford. That gives her roughly thesame share of African-American support Klein had at this point in 1997.

But a remarkable 43 percent of black voters surveyed said they were undecided, compared with 27 percent four years ago.

"We've got a lot of work to do," said state Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, an African-American Baker supporter who served on the City Council with Ford.

He speculated that many African-Americans are turned off by Baker's connections to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Baker was co-chairman of Bush's Pinellas campaign, and the governor headlined a January fundraiser for Baker. More black voters will have to be educated about Ford's record, Peterman said, particularly her antagonism toward police Chief Goliath Davis, who is black.

"People in my community have to realize that when it comes down to this race and the two people we have running, the only choice we really have is Rick Baker," he said.

Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida, noted that in the last three elections, the mayor's job was won by the candidate who mobilized white establishment voters in the northeast and black voters south of Central Avenue. For Baker to win, he must do that also, Paulson said.

"If Baker's campaign is not able to mobilize the African-American vote to some degree, it really could indicate some significant problems," Paulson said.

He contends Ford needs to concentrate on mobilizing the anti-establishment vote, mostly voters to the north and west of Central Avenue. He thinks Ford, who plans to include African-American neighborhoods in a massive door-to-door campaign beginning this weekend, is wasting her time in predominantly black neighborhoods.

"I'd think you would want to spend wisely your resources going out where the ducks are rather than trying to convince the unconvinced," he said.

But skeptics who doubted Ford would tap support much beyond her second-place primary showing appear to have underestimated her. Ford, who took 21 percent of the vote in a nine-way primary, has picked up 11 percentage points from that number. Baker took 25 percent to win the primary and has also picked up 11 points among people who say they will definitely vote in the March 27 general election.

The poll indicates that most of the poll respondents who voted for City Council member Larry Williams in the primary are now backing Baker, though the number sampled is too small to be considered statistically certain. The poll, also in a small sample, indicates that Ford has made some inroads among neighborhood activist Karl Nurse's primary supporters.

"I think she's more concerned with the welfare and rights of all the citizens of St. Petersburg than Rick Baker would be. He strikes me as someone more interested in the wealthy," said James Smithers, a Coquina Key resident who voted for Nurse in the primary and appreciates Ford's support for an anti-discrimination gay rights ordinance.

Never in recent history have so many voters been undecided this late in the game. Overall, 32 percent of the voters said they hadn't made up their minds, although 37 percent believe the outcome will matter "a great deal." By comparison, 24 percent were undecided at this point four years ago, and 23 percent in 1993.

That obviously makes reaching those voters crucial to Baker and Ford, who so far have failed to impress many of the poll respondents interviewed by the Times.

Mary Tyler, a 78-year-old retiree who voted for Larry Williams in the primary, isn't especially enthusiastic about either. Baker strikes her as a "downtown money man," but she's leaning toward him because Ford's style rubs her wrong. "Too much mouth," she said.

"I just didn't want Rick Baker, so who else do I have to vote for?" asked Betty Danison-Dornbusch, 77, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident.

Dornbusch said she isn't crazy about Ford either because she thinks she's a "know-it-all," and Ford wrinkled her nose and showed disrespect when other candidates were talking at a recent forum. But she likes the fact that Ford is a woman. And she's not Baker.

The race is non-partisan, but happens to pit a devout Republican, Baker, against a devout Democrat, Ford. Despite that, conventional allegiances are out the window in this campaign.

Ford is the anti-City Hall candidate, which in recent St. Petersburg races has been the candidate pegged as hard-line conservative. She has antagonized some black leaders, while still appealing to voters who say they normally vote for the more progressive candidate.

"I like Ford, because she's a woman, and I think it's time to have the female agenda," said Genevieve Messina, who previously backed Fischer.

Likewise, Old Northeast resident Graham Thompson, who voted for Karl Nurse in the primary and usually supports Democrats, is backing Baker, the die-hard Republican. He likes Baker's interest in economic development south of Central Avenue, and disapproved of how Ford challenged a hospital alliance Bayfront Medical Center entered with Catholic-owned hospitals.

"Baker has a good personality and the ability to handle issues without being divisive _ like Goliath Davis," Thompson said.

The issues most often cited as very important in the poll were leadership, crime and the city's water supply.

The survey also pointed to a potential demographic for Baker to try to tap for votes: fans of Fischer.

Fischer, the poll indicates, is popular as he leaves office. Nearly 70 percent of the voters surveyed said they thought Fischer had done a good or excellent job over the past decade. Baker has largely kept his distance from the outgoing mayor, other than welcoming Fischer's endorsement. Ford has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the mayor.

_ Times research department senior analyst Diane Pflugrad Foley contributed to this report.

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