ST. PETERSBURG — With three weeks to go before the Nov. 5 election, Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman attacked each other during Tuesday night's debate with an aggressiveness and energy rarely seen in this race.
The increased vigor underscores how tight a race it is, though both men seemed better at attacking his opponent than articulating a vision for St. Petersburg for the next four years.
Both stuck to familiar themes that attempted to point out each other's deficiencies in the Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 forum at the Palladium Theater.
Foster, 50, tried to sell voters on the notion that the city is better now than it was four years ago and they have him to thank for it. "The other candidate wants you to think the sky is falling," he said.
Kriseman, 51, painted Foster as a mayor who has flip flopped on the city's biggest issues, such as what to with the Pier and the city's stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium.
"It's about leadership," Kriseman said. "It's about being decisive. I have the ability to bring people together."
The nonpartisan race has become increasingly partisan, with the state Republican and Democratic parties pouring cash into both campaigns for salaries and research. Some of Florida's most-powerful political committees also are supporting both candidates.
One of the hourlong debate's testiest exchanges came after Foster and Kriseman talked about outside groups' efforts to target voters with television ads and mailers.
Foster accused Kriseman of being behind a recent ad that tried to connect Gov. Rick Scott to the failed fee for fire service that Foster pushed to plug a budget gap in 2012.
Kriseman shot back that Foster is getting just as much help from outside interests.
"If hypocrisy was an Olympic sport, you would have won a gold medal," he said.
Accountability in Government Inc., a Tallahassee electioneering group, received $96,000 in the past two weeks from the state Republican party. The group's television ads portray Kriseman as an ineffective legislator during his six years in the Florida House, one of Foster's most popular refrains on the campaign trail. The group shares a Tallahassee address with Richard Coates, the general counsel for the Republican Party of Florida.
The former City Council members and lawyers fielded many of the same questions they've answered in earlier debates.
Kriseman said he would tighten up the police chase policy; Foster said he would not. Kriseman said he was in favor of mandatory curbside recycling; Foster said he was not. Both men were supportive of mass transit and red light cameras.
Unlike other forums, Foster and Kriseman were allowed to ask each other questions.
Foster wanted Kriseman to explain how he helped St. Petersburg residents as a state lawmaker.
Kriseman stressed that he worked for all Floridians. He touted legislation that he helped pass that toughened drunken-driving laws, increased service learning in classrooms and protected pedestrians in crosswalks.
"Up there you represent 18 million people," Kriseman said. "You have to look at all the issues."
He then asked Foster if the city is really better off today than four years ago.
While the mayor sounded more confident Tuesday than in the past two months, he stuck to talking points.
"When you consider the recession, we had to consider needs versus wants," he said, adding that he thought the city did a better job of doing more with less than others.
The future of the Pier and the Rays stadium stalemate — two of the city's most controversial issues — created more tension between the men.
Both vowed to protect taxpayers when negotiating with the Rays to explore sites outside the city. And Foster and Kriseman agreed that redeveloping the 85 acres around Tropicana Field could transform downtown.
Kriseman said the team would have to pay a fee to explore sites outside city. He then accused Foster of switching positions from earlier debates.
"You don't hear Mayor Foster's answer because I'm not sure if he knows," Kriseman said.
Talks between the team and Foster have broken apart in recent months. City and team officials had been negotiating a possible agreement that would free the team to examine sites in Tampa.
The team's user agreement with the city binds them to the Trop until 2027.
Foster pledged to resume talks but said the city's legal position would weaken if the agreement was altered.
Another difference surfaced on how each man would build a new pier.
Foster said he will unveil a plan at Thursday's City Council meeting that would include a scientific survey of 1,000 residents to see what they want to see replace the inverted pyramid. At the end, Foster expects to pick from five to six designs.
Kriseman's vision would include about 10 to 15 designs, starting with recommendations that past advisory groups have already made.