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Warner's Prospects Keep Va. Guessing

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A01

RICHMOND -- At Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's 40th birthday bash a decade ago, a doctored photo of a young Warner pictured him dreaming: "When I grow up, I want to be chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia."

At his 50th birthday party last month, the dreams were much grander. More than 1,000 people crowded a Ritz-Carlton ballroom in Tysons Corner to wish Warner well and donate an extraordinary $2 million for his campaign fund.

On a visit to Hybla Valley Elementary School in Fairfax County, Gov. Mark R. Warner meets second-graders Karen Vanderpuye, left, Laura Castro, Alyssa Wells and Tanya Quintereos. Behind them is Del. Kristen J. Amundson. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

But which campaign will it be?

A multimillionaire entering his final year as governor of a conservative, Southern state, Warner has cultivated an image of fiscal discipline and bipartisanship that is catapulting him into the ranks of "the mentioned" among Democrats. Many assume he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2006. Some believe he will make a bid to be president in 2008. A few people close to him say he wants to be governor again someday.

"There are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who believe the party needs to reclaim the center," Warner said in an interview on the eve of his last General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday. "There are a number of figures who can help move the party in that direction."

The governor, his allies and aides refuse to speculate about his political future, even as such speculation swirls around them. Bumper stickers from Warner's 2001 campaign altered to read "Warner: President 2008" are for sale on the Internet. And there are at least two Web sites devoted to drafting Warner as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

Mary A. "Mame" Reiley, who runs Warner's political action committee, said he will be "focused on what he needs to accomplish in the General Assembly."

During his first two years in office, Warner struggled to find a legacy that might propel him beyond Virginia's capital. Year 1 was marked by harsh budget cuts that made few happy. Year 2 brought several high-profile failures in the General Assembly and the defeat of transportation tax proposals in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Things changed in 2004, when Warner pushed a tax increase through the Republican-controlled legislature by building a coalition with lobbyists, GOP lawmakers, business executives and local officials.

Now, Warner talks of helping to nurture a "sensible center" in Virginia politics that he hopes will last. And his supporters say he has built a national reputation as the guardian of the state's finances.

"I was accused of being naive in the first year and batted around in the second year," Warner said. "Time will tell."

Warner's adversaries in Virginia credit the governor with unmatched marketing prowess. They say he was remarkably successful in convincing people that a tax increase was necessary even though the state's economy was on the mend.

But their praise ends with that.

Lawmakers, GOP campaign consultants and anti-tax activists describe Warner as a slick salesman who pulled the wool over the eyes of the public and a majority in the legislature last year. They say he flip-flopped on his 2001 campaign promise not to raise taxes. And they argue he has few major accomplishments to point to after three years in office.

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