IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Keynote address gives Warner his chance

The pressure will be on for the Virginia Senate candidate speaking in the role that catapulted Barack Obama's career.
Obama 2008
Virginia Democratic Senatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, left, is likely to tout his business background and the successes he achieved in Virginia, while tying himself to Barack Obama when he gives the Democratic convention keynote address.Steve Helber / AP

Rep. Susan Molinari was at a New York City bar in 1996 when her assistant paged her and told her to call in to "Larry King Live"; Bob Dole had just named her the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.

In San Diego that summer, Molinari presented a young working mother as the new face of the Republican Party. But despite getting off the line that a promise from Bill Clinton had "the lifespan of a Big Mac on Air Force One," the speech was soon forgotten, and less than a year after her moment in the spotlight, Molinari was out of politics.

The stakes are always high for a politician being introduced to a national primetime audience. But they may be distinctly more difficult for this year's Democratic convention keynoter, former Virginia governor and current Senate candidate Mark Warner. He'll be speaking on Tuesday night, where he could easily be overshadowed by a highly anticipated speech from New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Warner will also be filling the role that four years ago went to , whose successful 2004 address in many ways began the upward climb that will culminate with his official nomination that Thursday.

But analysts say the keynote speech doesn't necessarily fate politicians -- or their parties -- to success or failure. "Historically, the keynote speech doesn't matter very much, at least in the long run," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "It can help to stir up the energy level in the convention hall, and that can be seen on television as well."

A good speech can aid a politician's rise, but it won't, by itself, make a legacy. "It's a rung on the ladder to becoming an important national figure," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. "But it's only one step. You have to climb that rung strongly."

Obama took an impressive step up when stole the spotlight four years ago with his speech in Boston. And Texas Gov. Ann Richards became a political celebrity in 1988 for a speech in which she mocked Republican candidate George H.W. Bush as "poor George," quipping that he was "born with a silver foot in his mouth."

But for every Obama or Richards, there is a Molinari or an Evan Bayh, whose 1996 address in Chicago was widely panned. While some convention keynotes have vaulted politicians to national recognition -- even, in Obama's case, to a presidential nomination -- the role has done little good for other political careers, even at times setting them back.

Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford made few waves after speaking in 2000, and Sabato said Bayh was hurt for years by his poor performance in 1996. Obama's counterpart at the 2004 GOP convention, retiring Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., grabbed notice for crossing party lines to speak in New York, but it was hardly the bridge-building star turn on which future political careers have been made.

(It is a common misnomer that then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton bombed in 1988 as the Democratic keynote speaker. His 32-minute, much-lampooned speech was actually the nominating speech for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.)

Republican officials announced Tuesday that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who himself mounted an unsuccessful bid for the presidency, will deliver the keynote address in St. Paul. Giuliani was well received as a convention speaker in 2004, but he does not represent a new voice in the same way that past keynote speakers have. Some had speculated that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- who, like Obama, has come to be viewed by some as the future face of his party -- would be offered the slot.

Advisers to Warner suggest his remarks will not throw red meat to those assembled in Denver. He has remained popular in a traditionally Republican state by crossing party lines on some issues, and aides are nervous that a partisan speech could hurt him back home. Instead, he is likely to tout his business background and the successes he achieved in Virginia, while tying himself to Obama with a bipartisan message that focuses on accountability and results.

"Message-wise, it's a great opportunity that fits completely with where he is as a leader and what he's offering as a candidate," a Warner adviser said.

"We've got to get beyond the notion that every problem has got either a Democrat or Republican solution," Warner told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, "when in actuality we need to put American solutions first, and the notion that you can't write off all of small-town and rural America, which both political parties have for 30 years."

One Warner aide said the candidate was approached by the Obama campaign several weeks ago to gauge interest in the speech. Warner's staff will likely be the ones to draft the remarks and have been told that the Obama campaign does not hold veto power.

But one Democratic operative who has been involved in convention planning in the past said campaigns often stress themes and ensure those messages make their way into all the speeches. "Often, there'll be some vetting" of the addresses, he said.

Sabato said he thought Warner harbors presidential ambitions -- two years ago, Warner surprised many when he announced he would not pursue the office in 2008 -- and the address will be a test of his readiness for a White House bid, especially given that he is not known for his oratorical skills.

"If I were in his shoes, I'd be self-deprecating to Obama, both as the nominee and the guy who did this four years ago," Sabato said. "He should admit from the beginning he can't equal Obama's score."

But even in a best-case scenario, Sabato said, when the next day's newspapers arrive, "I doubt Warner will even get a headline."