TAMPA — When voting ends Tuesday evening, most observers agree that former police chief Jane Castor will be leading the race for Tampa mayor. Even her competitors don’t argue.
But with seven candidates in the fight, polls indicate it's unlikely Castor can get more than 50 percent of the vote. That means a run-off April 23 with the second-place finisher.
Who is it likely to be?
"I think everyone is in it. That's the $64 million dollar question," said Harry Cohen, a term-limited City Council member who is one of six candidates likely competing to make the runoff.
Former county commissioner Ed Turanchik's take: "This race is wide open. Period."
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Tampa mayor’s race, explained
In the final days before the election, candidates are hopscotching Tampa in search of votes. Some, like Cohen, are going to all corners of the city. Others, like Turanchik and City Council member Mike Suarez, are focusing their efforts in neighborhoods they deem most favorable to them. That’s South Tampa for Turanchik and West Tampa for Suarez.
Cohen said he thinks most of the electorate has made up its mind. "I think this cake is pretty much baked," he said.
Turanchik, though, predicted a much higher turnout than expected on Election Day and said he thinks a big segment of voters remain undecided.
All of which makes early voting sites, little leagues and community events prime spots for persuading voters in the final days.
"This is the fun part," Suarez said.
David Straz, the retired banker and philanthropist who has spent the most money in the campaign, is papering the city's mailboxes and filling computer screens with attack fliers and digital ads against Castor. They flag her controversial policy on ticketing black bicyclists while police chief and her support of the red-light camera program.
Last week, the police union and the widow of a police officer killed in the line of duty in 2010 criticized one of the mailers, which shows Castor wearing a commemorative bar across her badge around the time of the killing. Castor also criticized the ad, saying it would turn off voters with its negativity.
Despite a big lead in the polls, Castor said she's not changing her game plan and had a busy weekend schedule planned.
"I feel very, very positive about this," she said. When asked if she thought she had a chance to get more than 50 percent on Tuesday and end the race, she demurred: "They say it's a statistical improbability, which I think is French for not possible."
Another candidate who avoided interview requests for this story is retired Judge Dick Greco Jr., the son of former mayor Dick Greco. He has taken a stand to the right of the other candidates on whether Tampa should be a sanctuary city.
He has also largely avoided advancing substantive plans, often mocking the written transportation and affordable housing proposals put out by other candidates. He has said that he'll work with regional governments and agencies to move the city forward on those issues.
His campaign did release a statement last week vowing to avoid negative campaigning.
The self-acknowledged longshot candidate in the race, branding consultant Topher Morrison, released a YouTube video last week depicting a typical day in his campaign, including impressive shots of the city at night from his 27th-floor apartment in the Element downtown.
Morrison, like most of the candidates, discounts the accuracy of local polling. A public survey last month showed him polling at 1.4 percent.
"That just gives some a false sense of confidence and people like me the motivation to work harder," he said.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn finished second in the first round in 2011, trailing Rose Ferlita. He ended up a landslide winner. But the mayor said this race is different.
In 2011, only a couple of hundred votes separated Buckhorn, Ferlita and former mayor Dick Greco. The business community backed Buckhorn after Greco's defeat. That dynamic isn't in place this year, he said.
"The gap between Number 1 and Number 2 will be a lot bigger," Buckhorn said, saying he thought Castor would get at least a third of the vote with the second place candidate finishing in the teens. "That's a lot to make up."
He said he didn't see any of the other six candidates being able to gain the support necessary to overtake the frontrunner. "I don't know if we'll see that movement en masse," he said.
But the mayor said second place is anybody's guess, likely coming down to a difference of a few percentage points.
Retired University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said with the candidates largely agreeing on the issues, biography matters. The candidates vary in age, race, sexual orientation and gender, she said.
"It may well come down to voters deciding based on one of those categories," she said.
Turanchik, who didn't make the runoff in the 2011 mayor's race, said this campaign has been strange. Many people he meets still don't know there's an election for the new leader of Tampa Bay's largest city on Tuesday. Others appeared fatigued by the vigorous fall campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.
"It's a very odd election. The strangest one I've been in in thirty years," he said.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated where two mayoral candidates would be focusing their efforts in the final days before the election. Mike Suarez would be spending the bulk of his time in West Tampa while Turanchik would be stumping in South Tampa.