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Tampa mayor's race a dead heat

With five months to go, Frank Sanchez pulls within striking distance of two more well-known candidates, a new poll shows.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2002


With five months to go, Frank Sanchez pulls within striking distance of two more well-known candidates, a new poll shows.

TAMPA -- At the beginning of the year, few people in Tampa knew much about Frank Sanchez, a business consultant who worked in the Clinton White House.

But a St. Petersburg Times poll shows that Sanchez is in a statistical dead heat in the race for mayor against Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda, two well-known City Council members.

Among Tampa residents who have been following the mayor's race, 25 percent said they support Buckhorn, 21 percent favor Miranda, and 19 percent back Sanchez. Given the survey's 5 percent margin of error, the race is too close to call.

Fitness author Donald Ardell, also a candidate in the March 4 election, was favored by 1 percent.

The St. Petersburg Times surveyed 350 Tampa residents who said they were following the race for mayor. The telephone survey was conducted Sept. 24-26 by Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland. It shows that:

-- Residents are putting a high priority this year on ethics at City Hall. The people interviewed said a candidate's ethics would be the most important factor in their selection of the next mayor. That sentiment comes amid a federal investigation into Mayor Dick Greco's former housing chief.

Improving traffic and neighborhoods were other high priorities, while promoting Ybor City and fighting adult businesses were minor concerns.

-- Miranda, a low-budget candidate known for his folksy ways, has a strong base of support. Some had counted Miranda out.

"I know Tampa, and Tampa knows me," said Miranda, who was delighted by the results. "I don't try to be fancy. I just try to tell it like it is."

-- Buckhorn enjoys the most name recognition, but about 33 percent of the people who knew about Buckhorn held an unfavorable opinion of him.

The survey makes one thing clear: With five months to go before the election, the fight to replace Greco is wide open. Most people have yet to focus on the race. And about one-third of those that say they are paying attention haven't made up their mind.

"They are practically nose-for-nose," said political consultant Wayne Garcia, who isn't backing a candidate.

Buckhorn's biggest challenge will be to change some voters' perception of him, Garcia said. About 74 percent of people interviewed were at least somewhat familiar with him. Thirty-nine percent were "very familiar" with him.

Buckhorn cemented his public image over 15 years, first as an aide to former Mayor Sandy Freedman, then as a City Council member who championed a crackdown on lap dancing.

Many who don't like Buckhorn cite his crusade against adult businesses. Others said they don't trust him and see him as too much of a politician.

Garcia called Buckhorn's 33 percent unfavorable rating an "extremely high number."

"That doesn't bode well," he said. "Everyone knows Bob, and you either like him or you don't like him."

Buckhorn said the rating comes from standing up for what is right.

"It is easy to be popular if you sit there and do nothing," he said.

Buckhorn might benefit from the public's unhappiness with ethics at City Hall. He was the most vocal critic of how the mayor supported former city housing chief Steve LaBrake even as federal investigators launched a criminal investigation.

"I think people are fed up," he said. "They are tired of the good old boys taking care of each other."

Buckhorn has described Sanchez as an underling of Greco who is filling his campaign coffers with special-interest money. Sanchez has raised more than $377,000, much of it sizable contributions from lawyers, developers and business executives close to Greco.

"I think people are going to wonder what strings are attached to that money," said Buckhorn, who has raised more than $222,000.

But Sanchez hasn't been hurt by the criticism, the survey suggests.

Many residents who have learned about Sanchez like him, the survey suggests. He had a 53 percent favorable opinion and the lowest negatives in the field.

"No one knows who he is," Garcia said of Sanchez. "He gets to invent who he is."

Sanchez credits his positive message.

"I think people are excited about someone who brings new ideas and new perspectives, and someone who has a business background," he said.

With a hefty campaign chest, Sanchez can afford to create his own message through television ads and targeted mailing. He also can respond to attacks.

And Sanchez's lack of government experience might not hurt his candidacy.

The Times poll suggests that residents look at a candidate's business experience as much as they look for experience in public office. Sanchez has never run for office, but he runs a consulting business and has served as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

-- Times senior research analyst Diane Pflugrad Foley contributed to this report. David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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