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By Steve Bousquet | Tampa Bay Times

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater invited a group of friends over for drinks, appetizers and political conversation.

The topic around the pool patio was Latvala's interest in running for Florida governor next year. The consensus on that day in October was that he has as much of a shot as anyone in what could be a crowded field in a wide-open race in 2018. Gov. Rick Scott can't run again and is expected to seek a U.S. Senate seat.

Latvala, who has been low-key about any plans, confirmed he's serious about running, but he said he won't make any decisions until at least May, when the next legislative session is over.

"I have as good a grasp of where the state is, where the state has come from, and the things we need to do as anybody in public office," he said in a Times/Herald interview. "I love this state. Why shouldn't I think about running for something else?"

He cited his long career in politics and success at business, including producing direct mail and providing strategy to candidates. He said the state has not spent enough money to tend to aging roads and bridges, prisons, mental health and foster care.

Latvala, 65, will end his legislative career in 2018 because of term limits.

He has more than $2 million in a political committee that would provide ample seed money to launch a statewide race, and as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee for the next two years, he can count on a lot of friends in Tallahassee.

Latvala, a formidable fund-raiser, will be accepting donations of up to $5,000 for his Florida Leadership Committee at a fundraiser today in St. Petersburg.

Latvala's patio guests included four former Republican leaders of the state House: Curt Kiser, Sandy Mortham, Dale Patchett and Ron Richmond.

All but Patchett have deep roots in Pinellas County, which would be home base for a Latvala campaign and where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in November.

Kiser, who represented Pinellas in the Legislature for 22 years, said Latvala's roots in the Republican Party go back to 1975, when he was a young state party operative.

"Jack's got a record of many accomplishments," said Kiser, who recalled traveling across the state with Latvala in the late 1970s, recruiting Republican candidates at a time when Democrats controlled the Legislature.

"I told Jack, 'Keep your powder dry. Let things play out,'" Kiser said.

Like Kiser, Richmond is a middle-of-the-road Republican more at ease with Latvala's views than the hard-right, anti-government conservatives who often are vocal in contested GOP primaries.

"Jack's a moderate, and there are a lot of Republicans who have been looking for a moderate." said Richmond, who represented Pasco in the state House for 12 years and is a lobbyist and Latvala's neighbor in Tallahassee.

Richmond speculated that Latvala also might seek the Cabinet post of chief financial officer, which will be open next year.

Others who attended the gathering were friends Joel and Diana Padgett, former Rep. Sandy Safley of Clearwater and Tallahassee lobbyists Jennifer Green and Margaret "Missy" Timmins.

Latvala has been popular in Tampa Bay, but some say he could face difficulty defending a moderate voting record in a primary where conservative Republican voters likely will be a force.

Latvala has been an ally of labor unions and trial lawyers, two groups long aligned with Democrats. He championed legislation in 2014 that allowed undocumented immigrants to receive cheaper in-state tuition at Florida universities, a political battle that divided Republicans and displayed his ability at building coalitions to pass bills in the Senate.

Former Senate President Don Gaetz of Destin, who served with Latvala and called him a "bully" in a highly publicized 2015 clash on the Senate floor, said Latvala recently called him to wish him a happy birthday — a sign, Gaetz said, that Latvala is looking to advance politically.

"His fundraising capability, his expertise at campaigns and his — let's call it sparkling personality — could be a factor in a statewide race," Gaetz said.

Latvala is known for a sometimes irascible temperament, which has long been the talk of Tallahassee.

Some lobbyists have personal tales of being screamed at or thrown out of Latvala's office. But he said he's more even-tempered than, say, President Trump, who offended ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in 2016.

"I like to think I'm a little more polished and mannerly, maybe," Latvala said.

In an interview, Latvala pointedly criticized the early front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. He has not made a formal announcement but is the runaway early fund-raiser with $4.5 million on hand.

"You've got one guy who's been in elected office since he was 21 years old and has never written a paycheck, has never written a workers' comp check," Latvala said of Putnam. "Is a party that just nominated Donald Trump going to nominate somebody that's never been in private business?"

Putnam's political spokesman, Justin Hollis, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes is also mentioned widely as a likely Republican candidate for governor, and Scott is said to be looking to recruit a self-funded political outsider like himself.

Corcoran and Latvala are expected to do battle in the coming months over state spending, especially for local projects in lawmakers' districts, which Latvala has consistently advocated and which Corcoran says are often a waste of tax dollars.