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Baker's supporters are nervous

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


Rick Baker has it all.

The St. Petersburg candidate for mayor has the most campaign cash. He has the most advertising time on cable television. He has staged the most impressive fundraiser, with Gov. Jeb Bush. He has the endorsements of the firefighters and the Realtors (and the recommendation of the Times' editorial board today).

And he has the most nervous supporters.

When you have it all, you are the biggest target with the most to lose.

There are eight other candidates besides Baker in the Feb. 27 primary. Only the top two advance to the March 27 general election. At least three probably have as much name recognition as Baker or more: City Council members Kathleen Ford and Larry Williams, and Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the African People's Socialist Party.

Another candidate, Karl Nurse, is the former chairman of the city Planning Commission. Nurse has a less familiar name to most voters but is well known among neighborhood activists.

So there are some nervous questions being raised in the Baker camp, though few will acknowledge it publicly. With so many candidates in an election that remains relatively low-profile, there is no reasonable way to gauge who stands where.

Yard signs?

That hardly seems scientific.

Opinion polls?

There aren't any, at least any that are public.

So we're left with gut feelings.

"The candidates who are better known are going to split up the vote that Rick would have, which should be a concern to Rick -- and is a concern to Rick," said former Mayor Bob Ulrich.

That has to be why Baker is spending more than $50,000 on ads on cable television. That would be a token amount in a legislative race, but it's serious cash in the St. Petersburg mayor's race.

Another sign that Baker's campaign is not so confident he will make the run-off: Last week's endorsements by Mayor David Fischer, Ulrich and former Mayor Corinne Freeman.

Adam Goodman, Baker's consultant, said the campaign never intended to hold those endorsements until after the primary. But they would have made a bigger splash in a general election fight against a more strident opponent such as Ford or Williams.

Baker's predicament is that his biggest assets are potentially his biggest political liabilities.

His fundraiser with Bush last month underscored his close relationship with the governor, which could come in awfully handy as mayor. But Al Gore, not Bush's brother, won Pinellas County last November. Even worse, the governor's support among African-Americans has hit rock bottom because of the election controversy and his efforts to replace affirmative action.

Baker needs strong support from African-American voters to do well. That's how Fischer won re-election four years ago. As it is, the black vote is expected to be divided among Yeshitela and others in the primary.

Putting Baker's ties to Bush on public display raised plenty of money. But the price could be lost votes in black neighborhoods.

Second, Baker is the prototypical establishment candidate. He is a former Chamber of Commerce president and chairman of the Florida International Museum. That sort of resume makes an easy target for the St. Petersburg faction that, as Ulrich said, "has resentment for somebody who might be with the "in' crowd."

Nurse, who lives in the Old Southeast, pointed out at a forum last week that he would be the first mayor who didn't live in Snell Isle or the Old Northeast in years. Baker lives in the Old Northeast, one of St. Petersburg's most desirable neighborhoods.

Baker's charitable efforts also are under attack. After he mentioned his efforts to provide presents and Christmas trees to poor families during the forum at Bethel Community Baptist Church, Yeshitela shot back: "I think it's good to give away Christmas baskets and things like that, but I think we need other things more, like home ownership."

Those jibes demonstrate that Baker's opponents believe he is the front-runner. But Baker's deliberate campaign style and focused platform may not be a plus in a crowded primary where snappy responses are what voters remember. He is not a shouter, and he has taken a page from the Bush brothers' campaign book and hammered away at a handful of issues.

That discipline can pay off in longer campaigns. It won't necessarily generate headlines or neighborhood buzz in a mayor's race that is a short sprint.

Nobody is looking for a huge voter turnout in this election.

"Primaries," observed Goodman, "are generally campaigns of passion."

Ford's supporters are passionate. Yeshitela's supporters are passionate. Baker's supporters are for stability, not change. That doesn't create a lot of passion.

In a crowded field, a relatively small but passionate base can carry you past the primary and into the general election. Baker has to make sure his support is wider than it is deep to make the cut.

One suggestion: Tell those four supporters waving signs last week on the same corner along Fourth Street N to spread out.

"We are all working very hard," said Terry Brett, a co-manager of Baker's campaign, "and no one is taking anything for granted."

It pays to be nervous -- even for campaigns that have it all.

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