Warner's Rising Star
RICHMOND -- As awards go, this one was nice enough. The honor that Virginia Gov. Mark Warner received the other night from the Council of Chief State School Officers saluted his work not just in his home state but also in the broader movement to overhaul and improve high schools in this country.
It was an honor previously bestowed on Bill Clinton, among others, and was one more step in Warner's path along what might be called "the Clinton route" toward the White House: the successful stewardship of a conservative-leaning Southern state, a leadership role in the Education Commission of the States and the National Governors Association, and a growing following among fellow Democrats.
But the applause that greeted Warner at the ceremony here was hardly the highlight of his week. Earlier in the day, in his first foray to New Hampshire as an unannounced 2008 presidential hopeful, he had found a turn-away luncheon crowd of 200 state legislators and political activists at a Manchester restaurant and had been a hit. "An extremely favorable reaction," state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro told me. "I don't know him very well, but he's a very impressive guy."
Earlier in the week, Time magazine saluted Warner as one of the five best governors in the country. And a week before that, he had the satisfaction of seeing the Democrat for whom he had campaigned all over Virginia, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, win an unexpectedly strong victory over Republican Jerry Kilgore, who received a last-minute endorsement visit from President Bush.
Bush won Virginia in both of his own races, but Warner -- barred from seeking a second term by the state constitution -- has a towering 70 percent job approval rating and clearly provided coattails for Kaine.
"Timing is everything in politics," D'Allesandro remarked, "and Bush gave him the best publicity in the world when he came into Virginia the night before the election for Jerry Kilgore. What Warner said then was a killer: 'If they want to compare what's happening in Washington with what we've done in Virginia, that's a comparison I'll take any time.' " When I interviewed Warner after the award ceremony here, his comment on his good fortune was, "When it rains, it pours." And then he quickly added that four years earlier, when he was preparing to take office, the same thing seemed to apply -- in reverse.
His Republican predecessor had left the state with a budget deficit, which soon ballooned to multibillion-dollar dimensions, as the high-tech bubble burst and the economy slumped. The first two years of his term, Warner was forced to cut programs and employees, trying to control the damage.
At the start of his third year, with the economy recovering, he made a critical gamble. He proposed a major tax overhaul, eliminating the sales tax on food but raising other levies more, and toured the state, arguing that added revenue was needed to fund education, transportation and social services. With a major boost from business leaders who have a long tradition of supporting Virginia's superior public universities, he persuaded enough Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature to join him, and the program passed.
Today, with defense and homeland security spending flooding the state, Virginia has one of the healthiest economies in the country.
As D'Allesandro -- a supporter of John Edwards in 2004 -- commented, "Warner was able to talk about things he's actually done," an advantage that governors have over senators. He has made it possible, for example, for students in every Virginia high school to acquire at least one semester of college credits -- recognized by even the state's elite institutions -- along with their high school diplomas.
Warner is not alone in having a governor's credentials. At least two other Democrats, Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, are considering the presidential race (along with three or four Republican governors). And Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana talks at least as much about what he did in his two terms as governor as he does about his Senate career.
Warner and the other Democratic governors face two problems Clinton did not have to confront. For one thing, the country is now at war -- and foreign policy and national security loom much larger as qualifications for the presidency. And for another, there is Hillary Clinton. The senator from New York was an ally in her husband's climb to the White House. She looms as a formidable potential challenge to Warner and the other governors who fancy themselves traveling the same route. But unlike her, they have all won in states that went for Bush in 2004.