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Commissioner drops out of mayoral race

Hillsborough Commissioner Chris Hart announced Thursday that he is ending his foundering mayoral bid, saying pressing issues before the county are hindering an effective campaign.

The announcement, one of the worst-kept political secrets in town, left unanswered whether Hart would now try to run for the county commission seat representing primarily South and West Tampa, as has been widely speculated.

"I have not made a decision," Hart said Thursday night from a plane that was taking him to Washington, D.C., for a meeting about homeland security. "I'm going to sleep on it."

Hart needs to make up his mind soon. He must file by noon today to get on the ballot. He said he has not made any arrangements for someone to file on his behalf while he is away.

Term limits will force Hart out of his countywide seat this fall, but the Hillsborough charter allows him to run for a district seat. If he files for District 1, where he lives, he would face Gene Wells and Stephen Fuller in the Republican primary.

His entry into that race would give Republicans a candidate who has proven that he can win crossover votes in a district that historically has leaned toward Democrats. It also would add a candidate with name recognition to battle the five Democrats now in the race.

As recently as Tuesday, Hart told the Times he was staying in the mayor's race. And during a Wednesday commission meeting, he was still sounding like a candidate, saying that people will learn the city of Tampa is broke when the new mayor takes office.

Hart said Thursday that he decided to drop out in the last few days. He said neither his friends' advice nor his small campaign fund had much to do with it.

"In fact, that had very little to do with anything," Hart said. "The biggest dilemma was I just couldn't walk away from those (countywide) responsibilities. They take a lot of involvement and study. It's not just a vote."

Hart was the only Republican in the nonpartisan mayoral race. In April, when he entered with an announcement on the steps of City Hall, he already faced three candidates who had been running all spring: City council members Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda, and business consultant Frank Sanchez.

Hart raised far less money than he anticipated, largely because past supporters did not rally behind him financially. He raised only $24,000, compared to about $377,000 in Frank Sanchez's campaign account and $222,000 in Buckhorn's war chest. Even Miranda, a self-described dark horse, has raised $109,000.

Hart didn't show up to community forums with candidates, including one sponsored by a group of Hispanic Republicans. The chairwoman of the local Republican party publicly questioned his commitment to the race.

Now the contest begins among the remaining mayoral candidates to pick off Hart's supporters. Buckhorn said he will "aggressively pursue" people who were helping Hart.

"I think if folks are looking for a fiscal conservative alternative to the other candidates, then I think it will be to our benefit," Buckhorn said.

Sanchez wants to meet with Hart to discuss issues, and also hopes to recruit his supporters.

And Miranda? "I was going after his supporters when he was running," he said.

In a side note, Hart's former aide, Will Craig, also announced Thursday he is ending his bid for the commission seat representing northern Hillsborough. He, too, had struggled to raise money.

Craig returns to his old job today. He said that he and Hart had not discussed whether the job could last past November.