WASHINGTON—One of the biggest winners in this week's elections wasn't on the ballot.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner propelled himself into the top ranks of potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2008 by helping his chosen successor, Tim Kaine, win the governor's seat, showing his party for the second time in four years how to win in a conservative state.
Virginia hasn't voted for a Democrat to be president since 1964, but thanks to Warner it's elected two Democrats governor since George W. Bush became president.
Warner did it by reaching beyond core Democrats to NASCAR fans and rural voters, supporting the death penalty, gun rights and restrictions on abortion. He worked with business and Republicans to trim spending and pass a tax increase that fixed the state's books. His fiscal fix left Virginia among the nation's best-governed states, according to nonpartisan Governing magazine, and lets him leave office after the state's one-term limit with sky-high popularity. Kaine won Tuesday by campaigning on a vow to continue Warner's legacy.
"It puts him (Warner) in the top three on the stage for 2008," said Mike Erlandson, a former Minnesota Democratic Party chairman.
"I've never met the guy, but he (Warner) ought to be our nominee in ང," said Richard Harpootlian, a former South Carolina party chairman.
While it's early to be handicapping presidential politics for 2008, maneuvering is already under way in both parties.
For Democrats, most party insiders think that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., will win re-election next year, then formally kick off her presidential campaign with matchless name recognition, loads of cash, and baggage bearing both her and her husband's names.
But who'll emerge as her main Democratic challenger?
Many Democrats want a moderate or conservative because they think the party needs to win away some Republican "red" states to take back the White House. They note that the only two Democrats to win the White House in the last 40 years have been Southern governors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
"Mark Warner has written the playbook on how to win in a red state," Harpootlian said Wednesday. "Watch the way he got elected, the way he governed and the way he won last night. ... If Democrats around the country don't wake up and take notice, we're going to go down the same road we went down in ཀ."
Erlandson puts Warner with Hillary Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as the three top ང Democratic candidates. He likes Warner's style, calling him energetic, upbeat and charismatic. He lauded Warner's background as a successful business executive; Warner co-founded the cell phone company Nextel. "That helps with voters who don't like politicians who are just politicians."
And he said Warner showed that "you can increase taxes if you prove to the people that you're doing it for the right reasons and they're going to benefit."
Warner pushed through the tax increase after the previous governor, former Republican National Committee Chairman James Gilmore, left him with a fiscal mess. After cutting state spending sharply for two years, Warner enlisted business groups and key Republicans to back a tax increase in the name of maintaining the state's bond rating and strong higher-education system.
Warner faces plenty of obstacles, of course.
He's not well known outside his state. That would make fundraising harder. And his support for abortion restrictions, the death penalty and gun rights wouldn't sell well with the liberals who dominate many state primaries.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, said the state with the nation's first primary would offer Warner a real test.
"New Hampshire Democrats have trended more liberal over the last decade," Scala said. "There are fewer and fewer working-class, conservative Democrats out there to go after. Those might be the people most attracted to him."
He added, however, that New Hampshire Democrats also care about winning the general election. "If he doesn't come across as too conservative, and can raise questions about Hillary Clinton's electability, he could still do well."
Warner isn't saying whether he'll run. He has, however, formed a political action committee, hired a former top political aide to Al Gore and started traveling around the country talking to fellow Democrats.
He recently wrote an article on his views—he called it "The Sensible Center"—for a magazine published by the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that helped launch Bill Clinton nationally.
When President Bush went to Virginia this week to campaign for the Republican candidate for governor, Warner welcomed comparisons.
"If they want to compare how things are going in Washington versus how things are going in Virginia, I'll take that comparison every day of the week," Warner said.
For a Governing magazine report online about Virginia under Warner, go to: http://results.gpponline.org/StateOverview.aspx?id=138.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Mark Warner
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051109 WARNER bio
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