The hour is getting late for Rick Kriseman.
Even though the primary election won’t be decided until August 29, ballots will be sent to early voters at the end of this week. About 1,000 ballots have already been sent to military and overseas voters. Going by how other local elections have played out, the next two weeks could very well decide whether Kriseman is re-elected.
All of the public polling shows Kriseman trailing former mayor Rick Baker, but not by an insurmountable lead. Many of the Democrats who are supporting Kriseman remember that Hillary Clinton was solidly leading Donald Trump in polls taken a month before the presidential election and we all know how that worked out.
If Kriseman is to catch Baker — and he doesn’t even have to do that; he just needs to keep Baker from winning the race outright in the primary — the first step towards that goal is outperforming Baker in Tuesday’s critical mano a mano debate.
Sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9, the event is the only televised debate of the primary campaign. On stage will only be Kriseman and Baker as the sponsors decided that to make the cut, a candidate had to show significant fundraising prowess.
Here are five things to watch for during Tuesday night’s showdown.
Does Kriseman overreach? Unless his campaign has buried its head in the sand — and there are too many pros working for Kriseman to suggest that — Kriseman’s team knows it’s trailing, perhaps dangerously, in the polls to Baker. The tendency will be to get back all the runs in one inning, but that would be a mistake by Kriseman. It can’t and won’t close an eight point gap with just one strong debate performance. So don’t try to hit a grand slam in every at-bat. Out-perform Baker, make a strong case for why voters should re-elect you, and let the narrative shape itself. Then see if by the end of the week whether Kriseman has shaved a few points off of Baker’s lead.
Does Baker pull a ‘Greco’? The former mayor is not one to measure the curtains early, but just as Kriseman knows he’s down, Baker knows that unless he gets his mustache caught in a weed eater, he’s probably going to get a third term at City Hall. The only political obstacle in his way is himself. That’s why he has to avoid a Greco. In 2011, former Tampa mayor Dick Greco was well on his way to winning an unprecedented fifth term leading the city, but then he compared race riots in 1967 that to the lingerie-stealing pranks once popular on college campuses. All of a sudden, Greco looked old and out-of-touch. After he finished third in the race, most observers pointed Greco’s debate performance as the turning point. Baker has to avoid the same kind of self-inflicted damage (which, perhaps, could come if he is asked tough questions about his past views on LGBTQ issues).
What does Kriseman have to say about the latest sewage crisis revelations? A pair of Tampa Bay Times stories about the city’s response to the sewage crisis lay much of the blame for the sewer system problems on the current administration. Kriseman made a catastrophic strategic error trying to dirty up Baker on this issue because voters have as much of a problem with Kriseman’s unwillingness to accept responsibility as they do for the crisis itself. This debate offers Kriseman his best opportunity to explain his administration’s role in the crisis. P.S. Is it too late to offer a mea culpa?
How does Kriseman pull off black voters from Baker? As important as this debate will be to those following city politics, it’s not like there will be some sort of huge television audience for it. That’s why the post-debate narrative and spin will be so important. If one of the candidates can get their opponents to make a ‘What did he say’ moment that goes semi-viral, that would be a huge victory. Towards this, were I advising the Kriseman camp, I’d suggest the mayor press the former mayor on issues key to the black community. I’d tell Kriseman to say, “Rick Baker supported Sarah Palin at the time I was campaigning for Barack Obama.” I’d mention Chief Anthony Holloway and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomlin as often as possible. I’d do whatever I could to narrow Baker’s lead in the polls with black voters. Because there’s no way Kriseman can win if Baker continues to lead by double-digits with black voters.
— One more thought about targeting black voters: I’ve heard from a few (but not a lot so take this with a grain of salt) folks in the black community that many people were upset that Kriseman did not immediately condemn the racially-tinged remarks of mayoral candidate Paul Congemi. Might Baker, who forcefully pushed back against Congemi at the first opportunity he had to do so, ask Kriseman why he didn’t react quicker?
Watch the refs. The debate moderators will be Times political editor Adam Smith and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory. I have not seen the latter moderate a debate, but I’ve seen Smith in action multiple times. Other than his moderating last year of the Charlie Crist vs. David Jolly, I’ve been impressed by Smith’s performance during this kind of event. He knows the community, both white and black, very well. He’s very good at identifying a candidate’s weaknesses and asking direct questions about them. Perhaps most important to Tuesday’s debate, Smith has a tendency to recognize who the underdog in the race is and give them a chance to score a few additional points.
The hour-long debate between Kriseman and Baker begins promptly at 7 p.m. It will be broadcast live on Bay News 9.