ST. PETERSBURG — People overwhelmingly believe the city is headed in the right direction, but they aren't sure Mayor Bill Foster is the one who should lead it, according to a new poll by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.
The poll found the incumbent mayor and his challenger Rick Kriseman locked in a tight race that could find either man at the helm after the Nov. 5 general election. Kriseman was ahead by the slimmest of margins, with 40 percent of the vote compared to Foster's 39, well within the poll's margin of error of 4.8 percentage points.
Sixteen percent of voters remain undecided.
Foster said he was slightly disappointed with the results, especially given that 72 percent of residents like where the city is going.
"If we're going in the right direction, don't fire the guy who brought you through the recession," he said. "This just puts fire in the bellies of all my supporters."
On the campaign trail, Foster frequently mentions cranes in the sky, construction projects under way worth $500 million and how he steered through the tough times.
Kriseman, 51, said he thinks the poll shows voters recognize the rhetoric.
"Residents see through Bill's message that he's trying to take credit for everything," Kriseman said.
Foster isn't deterred by the tight race and vowed to refine his message to sway undecided voters and even win over Kriseman supporters. His campaign did a poll recently that mirrored the Times/Bay News 9 results, he added.
"We knew it would be close," said Foster, 50. "We know there's a lot of undecided voters. We're going to build on that momentum."
The poll, conducted Sept. 14-16 by Braun Research of New Jersey, surveyed 410 registered voters who said they will definitely or probably vote on Nov. 5.
In a city with a picturesque waterfront, a growing downtown and an exploding arts district, most residents were happy with St. Petersburg's progress. However, some attributed the latest developments to an improving economy rather than city leadership.
Real estate investor Shawn Seecharran, 51, said Foster's policies didn't increase property values or trigger building projects. By that same token, he said, Kriseman also hasn't offered any grand ideas to move the city forward.
"I don't like anything about either of them," said Seecharran. "(Foster) looks more honest than the other guy. That's all we have to vote on these days."
Musician Billy Marcus, 66, said he supports Foster because he's shown leadership in the stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Bill Foster makes sense, " said Marcus, who lives in the Lealman area. "I don't know much about the other guy."
Dorothy Bell, 75, backed Foster in 2009, but not this year.
The retired university technician criticized the way Foster handled the Pier saga and the closing of the Sweetbay supermarket in Midtown.
Foster's policies have not done enough for the city's poorest neighborhoods, said Bell, who lives in Pinellas Point.
"That place is like a morgue," Bell said of Tangerine Plaza. "He could have done better. Kriseman sees that."
Eileen Conte, 70, agreed.
"Mayor Foster has done a good job. He's a nice man," said Conte, who lives in Allendale Terrace. "We need different ideas and enthusiasm. It's time for a change."
Even though the race is nonpartisan, many residents were swayed by party politics.
"I like the policies of conservative Republicans," said Peter Goodrich, a 61-year-old landscaper. "I don't like the policies of Democrats."
His only knock on Foster, a Republican, is that the city tried to build the $50 million Lens without voter approval. But Goodrich lauded Foster's handling of the years-old stadium saga.
"A contract used to mean something in the old days," said Goodrich, who lives in the Pasadena area. "How come there isn't any corporate support? Where are they?"
Since Foster took office in 2010, voters' opinions of the city have improved, according to past Times polls. In 2010, 57 percent of residents said the city was headed in the right track. In 2012, that number was 63 percent.
In the coming weeks, voters should expect an onslaught of television and radios ads and mailboxes filled with glossy fliers as both Kriseman and Foster work to win over those undecided voters.
"I'm not focusing on polls," Kriseman said. "We're still trying to send a message about jobs, education and strengthening neighborhoods."
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.