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Mayoral race even in St. Petersburg

A Times survey shows a large number of undecided voters. The black vote may determine the winner.

Rick Baker and Kathleen Ford are in a dead heat as they head into the final stretch of the race to become mayor of St. Petersburg, with one in three voters still undecided, a 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."

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 Ford, who declined to look at the Times poll or comment on it, roughly the same share of African-American support Bill Klein enjoyed at this point in 1997 when he challenged Mayor David Fischer.

But a remarkable 43 percent of black voters surveyed said they were undecided, compared to 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 who supports Baker and served on City Council with Ford.

He speculated that many African-Americans are turned off by Baker's connections to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Baker served as co-chair of Bush's Pinellas campaign, and Bush headlined a January fundraiser for Baker. The St. Petersburg mayor's race is non-partisan.

"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.

Baker, 44, and Ford, 43, are attorneys. Ford has shelved her practice to serve on City Council for the past four years. Baker maintains a practice.

Darryl Paulson, a professor of government of the University of South Florida, noted that in the past 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 starting this weekend, is wasting her time there.

_ Times Research Department Senior Analyst Diane Pflugrad Foley contributed to this report.