MANCHESTER, N.H.—Don't look now, but the contest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is already underway and once again a little known southern governor is turning some heads.
Once, it was Jimmy Carter trekking north from Georgia. Then Bill Clinton from Arkansas. Now it's former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who this weekend made his second trip to New Hampshire, site of the nation's first primary.
His message: I proved I could win and govern in a conservative "red" state, the kind of state Democrats need if they are ever to win back the White House. I've also got the management style they need if they want to get anything done after inauguration day.
The verdict was encouraging among party activists considering which candidate they'll work for.
"He's coming on strong," said Carol Shea-Porter, a Democratic candidate for Congress. "He's getting noticed. People are talking about him."
Said Dick Swett, a former congressman from New Hampshire: "Those in the know have a very high opinion of him."
Neither endorsed Warner. Nor should anyone make reservations for the Warner nomination or inaugural yet. Warner only has the support of 2 percent of New Hampshire Democrats in a new poll, well back in the pack and far behind presumed frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
But many of the roughly 500 party insiders who came to hear Warner speak at a dinner Friday evening said they are just starting to think about which candidate they will help.
Warner, who left office weeks ago after a one-term limit, poured on the charm, first in a convention-like video that trumpeted his achievements and then in a half-hour speech.
His theme was part Bill Clinton, part George W. Bush, and all Washington outsider.
A self-made millionaire, he stressed the need to help people help themselves, reminiscent of Clinton's 1992 campaign.
"One of our challenges ... is to make sure everyone gets their own fair shot at their own version of the American dream," he said. "And getting that chance ought to be more important than who your parents are, what race you are, or where you worship."
He zinged Bush for failures in his administration—such as a confusing new Medicare drug benefit and the government response to Hurricane Katrina—and used Bush's 2000 campaign rhetoric against him.
"Tell me who has been held accountable," Warner said. "From an administration and a party that preaches the ethic of personal responsibility, the consistent lack of it in our government is unacceptable."
He vowed a strong national defense and tried to deflect expected criticisms that he has no national security experience. He noted that his state has the highest per capita number of military installations in the country—though he did not explain how that gave him experience.
Mostly, Warner stressed his record in Virginia, winning in what he called "the reddest of red states," then fixing a budget mess inherited from a Republican, improving school test scores, and expanding health care. He left office with soaring approval ratings, helping his lieutenant governor win the top job.
"We tackled some big problems ... some of the same kind of problems you face here in New Hampshire ... and we face all across the country," he said.
"We did in a way that tried constantly to bring people together," Warner added. "That's sure not how it is in Washington."
His record, Warner knows, differentiates him from Hillary Clinton and the other senators he could face for the nomination.
"What the Democratic party needs to get back on its winning way is to have a vision for the future and show results," he said after the speech.
"As a governor, you're responsible. If the program doesn't work, you're responsible. ... That raises the stakes."
For Democrats, the stakes are high. Choosing the right message and messenger could lead them back to power. Choosing wrong could allow the Republicans to build an enduring majority.
"I've read the favorable reports about Warner. I'd like to see if his success in Virginia is transferable to other parts of the country," said Philip Grandmaison of Nashua, N.H.
"I'm looking for a candidate who can win a general election. Not much else matters if we can't get that."
To view the Warner video, go to http://www.forwardtogetherpac.com/php-bin/news/showArticle.php?id=40
For more on Warner, go to http://www.forwardtogether.com
Today's support for possible candidates in the New Hampshire primary
Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana—1 percent
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware—2 percent
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas—7 percent
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York—32 percent
Former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota—1 percent
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina—9 percent
Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—2 percent
Former Vice President Al Gore—5 percent
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts—7 percent
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico—1 percent
Former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia—2 percent
Sen. George Allen of Virginia—1 percent
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas—0 percent
Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee—3 percent
Former Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia—8 percent
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska—0 percent
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas—0 percent
Sen. John McCain of Arizona—41 percent
Gov. George Pataki of New York—5 percent
Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts—9 percent
Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado—1 percent
NOTE: The American Research Group survey of 600 likely Democratic and 600 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Feb. 2-9 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Mark Warner
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051109 WARNER bio
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