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IT'S NOT A RACE WITHOUT OPPOSITION

The late Judge C. Luckey Jr. - Hillsborough County's longtime Southern-drawling public defender - had a saying about political campaigns. In his experience, he would tell you, the best way to run for office was (pause): "Unopposed."

Don't politicians know it.

Just when it looked as if Tampa's full-speed-ahead Bob Buckhorn would sail smoothly to a second mayoral term - fitting an unopposed election into his datebook somewhere between cutting another ribbon and reshaping downtown - came a recent plot twist.

(And by the way, don't politics around here start to feel like a long-running sitcom? As if somebody said: I know, let's get an Occupy-type person to run against the buttoned-down mayor and see what high jinks ensue!)

Enter Becky Rubright, political activist, acupuncturist and now opponent to Buckhorn, whom she sees as a "corporate Democrat."

"I don't have huge problems with a lot of what he's done, but I do think the focus is too narrow," says Rubright, among the activists who crashed a fancy Tampa fundraiser for Mitt Romney. She hopes to qualify by petition.

No question, contested elections are best, even if you think the incumbent is doing a good job. Choice keeps everyone on their toes.

So what does the mayor think? "I always expect that I'll get opposition, I've never not had opposition, so I'm sort of wired to run," he says. Already he's got a very Buckhornian line about "telling Tampa's story of the last 31/2 years."

No less than four City Council members know what it's like to run to stay seated, too, having also attracted opposition. For them, a contested mayor's race could be good news, though, since it's likely to bring out the city vote.

That uniquely Tampa tradition of pastry and politics continues at the 102-year-old Alessi Bakery. In there with the cupcakes and Cubans these days are shortbread cookies representing Gov. Rick Scott and challenger Charlie Crist, the sales to be tallied in a final cookie poll.

The cookies are (thankfully) in the shape of Florida - Crist in blue letters, red for Scott - though there's talk of adding the candidates' actual faces for voters to chew on as the race heats up. Just not sure how to feel about that.

And hey, don't tell us we don't take our politics to heart: In the last hotly contested mayoral race, spirited discussions broke out in line at Alessi and diehards reportedly found out how many the other guy sold and then bought enough to skew the poll, or at least even the numbers.

It's early, but so far: Crist: 16, Scott: 12.

Finally, a recent rumor of mayoral heart trouble was, in the words of Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Misdirected, anyway.

At an event at which Buckhorn was to speak, another attendee - also named Bob - suffered chest discomfort and went to Tampa General Hospital. (The good news: that Bob is recovering, the mayor reports.)

That day, "I guess somebody must have heard somebody say Bob had a heart attack," Buckhorn says. Rumors flew and reached, among others, the police chief and a mayoral assistant who said that if the mayor was having a heart attack, he was sending her emails at the same time.

"It got to the City Council," says Buckhorn, "who all immediately filed their papers to run for mayor."

Okay, that part's not true either. I'm fairly sure.

- scarlton@tampabay.com

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