A straw poll conducted by the Independent Herald on ihoneida.com shows a dead heat at the top of the five-man race for county mayor, with just 24 hours remaining before the start of early voting.

Incumbent Jeff Tibbals and challenger Paul Strunk are virtually tied atop the poll, while challenger Dale Perdue was in third.

Tibbals, who is nearing the end of his first term as mayor, was polling 34 percent Thursday morning, while Strunk polled 33 percent.

Perdue was polling 19 percent Thursday morning, followed by Wayne King's 13 percent.

Nearly 400 persons had voted in the straw poll.

Straw polls are unofficial and unbinding, and online polls are generally considered unreliable. The Independent Herald poll attempted to limit repeat votes by restricting each IP address to one vote. Generally, that would mean only one person could vote in a household or office.

Poll: Which candidate is best-qualified to lead Scott County?

Tibbals won the 2010 mayoral race by a landslide, but it has been widely expected that the election would be more contested this time around. Strunk, meanwhile, has been viewed by some election observers as surging late in the campaign.

"Paul is coming on strong in the Second District," a well-known Robbins voter told the Independent Herald Wednesday. "He and Wayne (King) are really campaigning hard down here."

Tibbals told the Independent Herald in an interview earlier this week that a look at statistics show that significant improvements have been made during his first term in office.

"All statistics indicate that Scott County is in much better shape than it was four years ago before I took office," Tibbals said. Among them, he has pointed out that total debt has been reduced by some $9 million, while unemployment has slid from a high of 21 percent to just over 12 percent.

Tibbals has highlighted education, infrastructure improvements and drug counseling a part of his platform for the next four years, saying that each of those are issues that are preventing job growth in Scott County.

Strunk, a two-term member of Scott County Commission who has served as the commission's chairman pro tem since 2008, has pointed out that, despite the decline in unemployment, the total number of people employed in Scott County has declined sharply since 2012. He has called for a collaboration between local municipalities and others with a stake in the industrial recruitment process, along with the development of a comprehensive incentives plan to help recruit industry — something he says has been missing.

"We have to have an alliance between county and city governments, and possibly neighboring communities, if we're going to remove the imaginary barriers that prevent us from collectively recruiting industry," Strunk said.

Strunk has highlighted his involvement in the recruitment of New Generation Paving to Scott County. The Oneida firm located in the former East Tennessee Trailers building in 2012, relocating from North Carolina, and makes commercial paving products.

Perdue, former owner of a Huntsville convenience store and deli, is considered by most election observers to be a front-runner in the mayoral race. In a Monday interview with the Independent Herald, he pledged to pour his efforts into job creation over the next four years.

"I've been in business and I know that people are suffering," Perdue said. "I've seen it with my own eyes. I know people struggle from day to day."

Perdue said he will lobby state representatives in Nashville to steer jobs to Scott County, while using the internet to search for firms that might be "looking for places to locate." He said he will make it a priority to ask employers to offer higher wages to Scott County workers.

"I just don't think $12 an hour is out of question in this county," Perdue said.

King is a long-time employee of Scott County Hospital who is currently a partner in Human Outsource, in addition to a church pastor and immediate past president of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce. He told the Independent Herald Saturday that he wants to engage the community on the topic of economic development.

"I feel it's important to get in touch with your constituents and find out how they feel — not just what we know or what we feel is important as an entity," King said.

King said he wants to develop partnerships with new industries that want to be a part of the local community, "not just be in here because they can get corporate profits and send them back to corporate headquarters."

Early voting in the Aug. 7 general election begins Friday. Voting hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at either the Oneida Municipal Services Building or the Scott County Office Building in Huntsville. Early voting continues on Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., then resumes on Monday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The last day to vote early is Aug. 2.

More: Jobs is focal point of mayoral race  |  Verbatim: The County Mayor candidates in their own words