A Matchup To Imagine

Presidential prospects: Could Warner, left, and Allen vie for the White House in 2008?
Presidential prospects: Could Warner, left, and Allen vie for the White House in 2008? (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Sunday, August 7, 2005

RICHMOND There was Democrat Mark Warner, all teeth, smiling grandly. And next to him stood Republican George Allen, ruddy-faced and grinning, too. Surrounded by reporters at the Richmond Marriott hotel last month, the pair might have been taken for best buddies as they celebrated the success of Virginia's tough school standards.

Allen, Virginia's junior senator, slapped his arm around Warner's shoulders and sang the governor's praises: "We may be in different parties," he said as Warner nodded, "but it's great, actually, for Virginians to know there is that commonality there."

Well, sure, but how deep does it go? Picture, now, fast-forwarding three years. It's 2008. National Republicans decide to nominate tobacco-chewing, bolo-tie-wearing Allen, a pro-lifer who spouts endless sports analogies, for president. Democrats, meanwhile, pick big-bucks, high-tech, NASCAR-loving Warner to compete for the nation's highest elected office. Suddenly, the two back-slapping Virginia pols are locked in a do-or-die battle for the presidency -- and the Old Dominion, with its 13 electoral votes, is at the center of the battle.

Sound crazy? Okay, full disclosure: That scenario may turn out to be nothing more than the wishful imaginings of Virginia's small corps of political reporters, professional pundits and campaign consultants.

And yet, an increasing number of national political pros who owe no allegiance to the commonwealth are offering the two politicians' names as leading candidates for the nominations of their respective parties. In April, the National Journal named Allen as the most likely GOP nominee, while more recently, Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore conceded that some believe Warner is "the [Democratic] party's strongest conceivable general election candidate."

And 84 years after Old Dominion native Woodrow Wilson left 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Allen and Warner both seem eager to measure the White House windows for new draperies. The two are giving speeches in important primary states, courting their respective party activists and raising money. Warner recently set up a new national political action committee. Allen just got back from a jaunt to New Hampshire.

If everything worked out just so -- and the odds are still stacked against it -- the pair could face each other in the ultimate Virginia showdown in 2008, ensuring a ninth Virginia presidency and a new resurgence of influence in national politics.

What would it mean for the Mother of Presidents, who earned her matronly nickname by producing four of the nation's first five presidents, to be pregnant again? Not since former governor L. Douglas Wilder took a shot at the Democratic nomination in 1992 has a Virginian sought the presidency. Virginian William Henry Harrison battled Henry Clay, who was born in the Old Dominion before moving to Kentucky, for the Whig nomination in 1839, but never have two of the state's politicians won competing party nominations.

If it happened in 2008, Virginia would instantly become "political ground zero" in the battle between red and blue America, says Steve Jarding, Warner's former campaign manager and the author of an upcoming book on Southern politics. And whoever wins would flood the state with billions of dollars in Washington pork. "Virginia wins, Virginia just got rich," Jarding says.

Not only rich, but famous. Or would that be infamous?

A Warner-Allen contest would spark a sudden interest in Virginia and its 400-year history -- good and bad. The Cradle of Democracy, yes, but also the heart of the Confederacy and the birthplace of massive resistance to integrated schools. Today, Northern Virginia is wealthy from the Internet and government contracting. But Southside is poor, struggling and out of work. Norfolk is home to the world's largest naval base, but southwest Virginia is home to coal towns whose glory days are long since past.

The attention from reporters would be "proctoscopic," jokes Virginia's leading talking head, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "Not just for the candidates, but for everyone. There is a lot of scar tissue in Virginia that could be picked open. Race is only the most obvious" sore point.

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