TAMPA - Former state Sen. Nan Rich, the only prominent Democrat who has declared as a candidate for governor in 2014, told a Tampa audience Friday she thinks she can win the governor's race despite being a lesser-known, dark horse candidate. "I believe I can," she said when an audience member at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club asked her whether she could win. She cited three former state senators who, like Rich, had never run in a statewide election but won one on their first try - former Govs. Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles and former governor and senator Bob Graham. She said polls show her name recognition higher now, at about 12 percent, than Graham's when she began working in Graham's first campaign in 1978. The mostly Democratic crowd was friendly, occasionally interrupting Rich with applause when she hit on standard Democratic themes, including preserving public education and blasting Gov. Rick Scott.
But reactions of some, including former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul Sena, showed why Rich may have a tough time trying to win votes in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, home of the two best-known potential candidates - Alex Sink and Charlie Crist. As a liberal like Rich, a woman, and active in Jewish civic and charitable causes, Saul Sena said, she's a natural part of Rich's constituency. "Her ideas are resonant with my beliefs," Saul Sena said. "But if Alex Sink runs, she's my candidate." Rich's speech touched on themes sure to appeal to Democrats - preserving abortion rights; preventing what she called an attempt by Republicans "to privatize our public schools by turning them over to for-profit management companies"; stricter gun control laws; and reinstating environmental and growth management regulations repealed by recent Republican legislatures. But she didn't say what some in the audience wanted to hear on one touchy question: the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Like many South Florida Democrats, Rich, from Weston, has to worry about alienating Cubans in her home base on the issue. She didn't advocate lifting the embargo, as Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor has done. She did criticize the embargo, saying, "When something goes on for 51 years and doesn't solve anything, something's wrong ... It's time to try a new tack." She advocated "a constructive dialog ... where we can move in a new direction" between the nations, saying political liberty and human rights in Cuba should be included. Rich's campaign got notice over the last few weeks by the state Republican Party, which sees her as easier to beat than Crist or Sink. The party called attention to Rich and criticized the Democratic Party for not allowing Rich to speak at a recent fundraising dinner. But Friday, after issuing a flurry of news releases saying Rich deserved a speaking slot at the Democratic dinner, the GOP blasted her as an "extreme liberal from South Florida" who can't win votes in the moderate Interstate 4 corridor. Rich said the party simply adjusts its criticism of Democrats to serve its own interests. [email protected] (813) 259-7761