A National Voice for Mark Warner?
No matter how hard he tries, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner can't escape talk that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
As Warner emerged from a car in Roanoke yesterday -- the third stop on his campaign swing on behalf of Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's (D) gubernatorial campaign -- a supporter greeted him with, "Good afternoon, President Warner." When Warner finally entered the Wilson Museum, a roar went up from the several hundred people packed into the lobby. (Kaine, who will be on the ballot seeking to replace Warner in just 18 days, had entered the room minutes earlier to much less fanfare.)
So it goes of late for Warner, who is simultaneously seeking to cement his legacy in Virginia by delivering a Kaine victory, while also delicately dancing around the question of what the next move is in his own political career.
Political observers seem set on casting the 2005 governor's race as a referendum on Warner and a sign of his 2008 prospects. While Warner insists that his "name is not on the ballot" next month, his level of energy for and involvement in Kaine's campaign down the final stretch suggests that he knows more is at stake than simply electing his preferred successor.
Warner is already laying plans for his next race despite having spent less than four years total in elective office. He has taken the first fledgling step to a national bid by setting up a leadership political action committee -- Forward Together PAC -- and hiring political operative Monica Dixon to run it. Unlike some of the other Democrats seen as 2008 contenders, Warner has not traveled to key caucus and primary states yet -- all of that is likely to come after next month's election and the completion of his gubernatorial term.
Riding in a police car to the Roanoke event, I asked Warner about his decision to form the PAC. "If you want to have a voice about where the party heads, the rules are that you set up a PAC," he said bluntly. Asked directly about 2008, Warner offered only that he is "a long way from making any decision" before lapsing into the broad, toothy smile that he uses to put off voters who ask him the same question.
Warner certainly gets plenty of practice with his evasions about '08. At each of the four stops throughout southwestern Virginia Thursday, he was barraged by questions about a presidential bid. "Warner '08," shouted a bystander at Java J's coffee shop in Bristol; a man at a Martinsville Chamber of Commerce meeting told Warner matter-of-factly, "Good luck with the presidential"; state Del. Ward Armstrong (D) told a crowd that "President Mark Warner could do a great deal [here he is interrupted by a loud standing ovation] to reforming the Medicaid system."
Although he tries to dodges questions about his political future, Warner is clearly not planning to disappear when his term ends at the end of the year. He is a whirling Dervish on the campaign trail, trying to shake every hand, pat every shoulder and hug every old lady in each town in which he stops. Polling that shows his approval rating sky-high seems to fuel his confidence on the trail; he has succeeded in the eyes of voters and knows it. The final days of the Kaine campaign are a victory lap of sorts for Warner.
During the Bristol stop, Warner ducked into "Japan-Karate-do" to greet a class and asked to see a few moves. After the event at Java J's, he ran across the street, trying to get into a theater showing the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" to meet a few more potential voters. It was locked, however, so Warner moved on to greet an older couple on the street.
It is this energetic, warm and "real" presence that Galax Mayor C.M. Mitchell believes is the key to Warner's success in Virginia and his future prospects. "He is an approachable person," said Mitchell at a Warner-Kaine event in his home city Thursday. "I would hope he could spread [that] out to a national campaign."
[Editor's Note: Follow the Kaine-Kilgore Va. gov. race in The Post's "Race to Richmond" blog.]
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