Washington — If ever there was a dark-horse candidate for president, it must be Reubin O'Donovan Askew, the former Democratic Florida governor whose support registered less than 3 percent in a recent Gallup poll. Most Americans have never heard of him.
Apparently undismayed, Mr. Askew, the former US trade representative under President Carter, beamed with self-confidence Wednesday as he announced at the National Press Club that he is running.
''No one is more aware than I that I'm not a household name,'' he said during his announcement.
But Askew asserts that he's accustomed to the underdog role, noting that he came from behind to become governor of Florida from 1971 to 1978. Although his campaign chest has yet to reach $1 million, he began more than a year ago to travel to every state.
''Ours is a time of change, of change as basic and profound as any since the Industrial Revolution,'' he said this week, calling himself best equipped to lead the nation through a period of ''transition'' and direct the rebuilding of America's industry.
Sounding an ''unbought and unbossed'' theme, he said he will accept no special-interest money, from labor or business, and strike no bargains with labor because ''if you (incorporate) everybody's agenda, you've literally negotiated away'' the ability to govern.
Such statements show that Askew is clearly not courting labor unions, as are most of his fellow Democratic candidates. While the rest of the presidential hopefuls back protectionism policies to shield American manufactured goods from foreign competition, Askew has consistently refused.
''The fundamental problems of the American auto industry are domestic in nature,'' he told the Washington Post late last year. ''Needless trade barriers will only divert us from addressing those problems - which can only be solved through a fundamentally new working relationship among labor, management, and government.''
While he stands little chance of winning labor's endorsement, Askew is steering a conservative course that is likely to please Southern Democrats.
''Democrats have not won the presidency in modern times without the South,'' he said. Since the party needs to win the South and some of the traditionally Republican West, he argued, ''That's an element in my own candidacy.''
Positioning himself as the most conservative of the Democratic choices, Askew argues ''it would be a mistake for the Democratic Party to turn sharply to the left'' by spending massive amounts to cure the recession.
''There are those in the Democratic Party who feel we can go into immediate massive spending,'' he said. ''I'm not one of them.''
A Southerner who helped lead his region out of the era of segregation, Askew has been active in civil rights for minorities and favors the Equal Rights Amendment. However, he takes a more restrictive view of abortion than the Democratic front-runners.
''I believe that life begins before birth,'' he said, taking the stand that abortions should be legal only ''for the health of the mother'' and in cases of rape and incest. However, he said that he opposes the right-to-life constitutional amendment which bans all abortions.
In his campaign, Askew moves in the shadow of another Southern governor's quest for the presidency, that of Jimmy Carter. Even Askew's accent and speaking cadence hold reminders of the former president.
''I'm not ashamed of Jimmy Carter,'' says the new candidate. ''But I'm not Jimmy Carter.'' Askew says he would be a better president because of his experience as the top US trade negotiator in the Carter administration.
His toughest test will be getting the Democratic nomination, Askew says. If he fails, would he accept the vice-presidency? ''No,'' he snapped back as he left his press conference. ''I'm running for president.''