Web surfers at a site called the Democratic Underground think Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner should be their party's next presidential candidate. So does a guy named Steve, who has started a "Warner in 2008" Internet journal. And among political pundits and the soul-searching leadership of the Democratic Party, Warner's name keeps popping up.
Three years ago, Warner persuaded voters in an overwhelmingly red state to put him in office with a NASCAR-loving, pro-death penalty, pro-gun rights, fiscally conservative campaign. Since then, he has backed some restrictions on abortion, signed more than a dozen gun rights bills, balanced the state's books and persuaded a Republican legislature to help him pass a $1.5 billion tax increase.
"The Democratic Party can't write off two-thirds of the country," Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner says.
(Bob Brown, Richmond Times-Dispatch - AP)
Now, as Democrats lick their wounds 1,452 days before the next presidential election, some are wondering whether Warner could work the same magic across the South, providing the party a presidential candidate who could appeal to the conservative, heartland voters who helped reelect President Bush.
"He clearly did something that Democrats have had trouble doing, that is, relating to rural voters," said Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's primary campaign for president. "Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton -- the standard names -- would do a lot worse than study Mark Warner."
The notion of a presidential bid by Warner could ripple through Virginia politics. The state's voters have not been kind to governors who seem too eager to move on, and Warner's full-time support will be key to Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's chances of succeeding Warner next year. A Warner presidential campaign would also change the political calculations about whether he might challenge U.S. Sen. George Allen (R), who is up for reelection in 2006.
Trippi and others say it is way too early to think seriously about a 2008 nominee. But in the past week, Warner's name has been all over television news shows and in newspapers.
He was mentioned, along with a few other possibilities, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Sunday Times of London, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal. They talked about him on CNN's "Inside Politics." And disaffected Democrat Zell Miller, the senator from Georgia, listed him among a group of "very, very good candidates" in an appearance on Fox News.
Warner, who is entering his fourth and last year as governor, declines to talk about his political future, other than to specifically deny any interest in becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He professes only a laserlike focus on his state and his role as chairman of the National Governors Association.
"I'm just not going to comment on any of that," he said as he boarded a plane for a national governors forum on education in Cleveland. "My top, sole responsibility is to be governor of Virginia. Other than the hardest of the hard core, most Americans are pretty well exhausted by this election."
But Warner, who graced the cover of Governing magazine this month as a public official of the year, has not been shy about describing how he thinks the Democratic Party must change. And those assessments fuel speculation about his role in the party's future.
"The Democratic Party can't write off two-thirds of the country," he said. "There were a number of voters in parts of rural Virginia and across the country who never got to a real review of John Kerry's plans on health care or education or job growth because [he's] . . . a Massachusetts senator. They never got past the label."
Some Democrats warn that a centrist candidate like Warner could be seen as "Republican light," standing for little.
"The number one candidate for the liberal wing would probably be Senator Clinton," said John Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. "The question is, do the Democrats go with their head or their heart?"
Pitney said the logical choice might be someone such as Warner, who is fiscally conservative and has won in a conservative state.