Governor Mark Warner
Redux Pictures file
Gov. Mark Warner looking ready to join the fledgling field.
By contributor
updated 6/1/2005 3:38:23 PM ET 2005-06-01T19:38:23

The buzz here is about Deep Throat and how President Bush allegedly lost his 'Mo, but, being the campaign geek I am, I'm thinking about the future: the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Here's where we are as we enter the starting gate. There are paired entries, as they say in horse racing.  Hillary (and Bill) Clinton in Number One, of course. Then, the 2004 John-John ticket-mates, Senators Kerry and  Edwards. The third pair are smooth-moving moderates: Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia. Rounding out the field, three other governors: Richardson of New Mexico, Vilsack of Iowa, Rendell of Pennsylvania.

Hillary's Hillary. 'Nuff said. The entry I'd rather talk about this time around is arguably the most obscure -- Warner.

Let's put the caveats up front. He is relatively young (50), has zero experience in defense or foreign policy, has no military background or national organization, and strikes some people who know him as unusually hungry and manipulative. Also, he will be out of office at the end of this year (Virginia has one-term-only governors), and who knows what will happen between then and '08 to affect the national landscape. We are in a dangerous and unpredictable world.

Still, he bears watching, and here's why:

He's a governor
In recent decades, governorships have been the best launch vehicles, especially if they are in the South or West. Among Democrats, we're talking about governors who managed to avoid the label "liberal" as they rise to national prominence: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

It's far easier to do that if you aren't in Washington, where the congressional party, and the interest groups attached to it, are pulling you to the left on every vote you must cast.

He's got money, and access to more
Warner, a Harvard Law grad who made a fortune as an early player in Nextel, is worth well north of $100 million. Perhaps more important, he has friends in the high-tech business corridor of Northern Virginia, and around the country, who can tap into deeper pools of cash.

In fundraising, you have to "bundle," which means aggregate relatively small (by the standards of rich people) donations. Warner is  "prebundled."

He's got a base
It's not quite the same thing as money. The late Lee Atwater, as cunning a political operative as there ever was, once told me that "politics is a base game." What he meant was, in the chaos of public life you need a reliable group of supporters who understand who you are and where you are coming from and who will remain loyal to you no matter what happens.

For many politicians, that base is geographical, but it's often something other than that.

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For Ronald Reagan it was the conservative moment. For George W. Bush, it was his mother's Christmas Card list and the National Governors Association. For Warner, it's the high-tech investment community nationwide.  He knows the players in Silicon Valley and Seattle and New York City -- and, more important, they know him. That matters.

He's a Southerner ... at least by adoption
There is a reason why the last three Democrats elected to the presidency have been from the South. It's become Republican territory, and the dominant cultural force in politics, and unless Democrats can make the GOP compete there -- and not take it for granted -- the Dems have almost no chance to win.

Virginia is trending Democrat, at least in the Northern Virginia (Washington) suburbs. Warner was born in Indiana and reared in Illinois and Connecticut. He came to D.C. for college, and stayed in search of business opportunities. He doesn't have a Southern accent -- and he'd never be mistaken for a good ol' boy, but he is, after all, governor.

He has a theory
When you run, you have to be able to give primary voters a convincing explanation of how you are going to win the general election. Those voters actually care about such things, which is one reason why Kerry won the Iowa caucuses and Howard Dean didn't.

Warner's theory (claim) is that he has cross-over appeal to what are, or have become GOP constituencies. He has some evidence to back him up, from his campaign, and from a major legislative victory in Richmond. He reached rural voters in 2001 by signaling his respect for cultural touchstones such as NASCAR, and by promising to bring broadband and the other engines of the digital economy to the countryside.

Faced with a big budget deficit, he enlisted corporate business types to support a tax increase -- and got the Republican-led legislative to approve it.

He has positioned himself as a centrist on social issues, which may be right where "country club Republicans" are: wary of too much emphasis on gay-rights or women's rights, but essentially tolerant people.

He has time
He'll be out of office by the end of the year, but the virtue of that is that he can travel the country and show his wares.

He's doing that already, having recently paid visits to the kingmakers of Democratic California. This week it's Illinois. His role in the National Governors Association gives him other avenues for travel. It's a big country out there.

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