By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006
RICHMOND, Oct. 12 -- Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner unexpectedly announced Thursday that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, citing the personal toll a run for the White House would have on his family.
Before Thursday, all signs pointed to a Warner candidacy. His repeated trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and other states with early primaries were largely successful, as voters greeted him with interest. He had raised $9 million for his political action committee. And he was positioning himself as a moderate alternative to another potential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
But Warner said Thursday that he had decided in the past few days that a presidential campaign would interfere with his family life even as his eldest daughter is starting to look at colleges. He said he did not want to put his "real life" on hold for the next two years.
"This moment in life is not the right time for me," Warner, 51, told reporters at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. "When and where, I don't know right now. But I guarantee you'll see me. I'm not going away from being involved in how we get our government fixed."
Warner, a millionaire and a founder of Nextel (now Sprint Nextel), insisted that he was not running away from scandal. "Politics is a body contact sport at this point," Warner said. "But, no, that was not [a consideration]. I understand folks in the political world will question it."
Warner's announcement stunned a growing cadre of political consultants, donors and volunteers in Virginia and elsewhere who were convinced that he would soon reveal plans to compete for the Democratic nomination. Not long ago, it appeared that Virginia could have a presidential candidate from each major party. Now, Warner is out, and Sen. George Allen (R) is in a close reelection campaign, and questions of racial insensitivity may have damaged his presidential aspirations, according to many GOP analysts.
Warner, who has been grappling with the decision for weeks, said he made up his mind during a Columbus Day weekend with his wife, three daughters and 81-year-old father in Connecticut. But the timing -- Warner made another trip to Iowa on Thursday -- left everyone in his political orbit struggling to understand.
Advisers who were in his kitchen cabinet when he was governor were shocked by the decision during a conference call Wednesday night; they had been told initially that Warner wanted to discuss "strategy." Several of his staff at Forward Together, the political action committee that was being fashioned into a full-blown presidential campaign, burst into tears when he told them at 9 a.m. Thursday. Word of Warner's plans soon leaked out.
"Everyone's devastated," said John Graham, his chief operative in New Jersey. "Why would a person pull out this fast? Is there something we don't know? Maybe he's not ready emotionally. All I ever said to him was, 'You're running, right?' And he said, 'Yes, I am.' "
Virginia Republicans, too, said they were surprised. But the decision prompted a bit of quiet celebration among GOP leaders who had watched Warner capitalize on his state tenure to run for national office.
"I've never really understood where the substance was," said Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who battled Warner's successful 2004 plan to raise taxes to pay for a growing government. "He's a guy whose only real legacy was raising taxes."
Warner rejected the idea that he was afraid he would lose to Clinton or one of the other as-yet-unannounced Democrats who could contest the nomination.
"Things will probably never be as aligned as they are right now," said Warner, who left office in January. "I bring a real desire to learn. I think I bring a tremendous curiosity. I think I bring a willingness to acknowledge when I'm wrong. Those three traits alone make me different from [President Bush]. Whether I had the experience and preparation to take on this challenge and then this job, I feel absolutely confident."
But that confidence -- a trait that some called unshakeable during Warner's four years in Virginia's executive mansion -- was apparently not enough.
Warner said his wife, Lisa Collis, and daughters, Eliza, 12, Gillian, 15, and Madison, 16, were ready to support a White House run. But he said that his wife was never enthusiastic and that his children were "excited" when he made his final decision.
"Lisa went from negative to neutral," Warner said of his wife's attitude in the past year. "They would have been supportive. They did not ask me not to pursue this."
A Democratic nominee could still ask Warner to run for vice president. That happened to Walter F. Mondale, who dropped out of the 1976 contest and ended up as Jimmy Carter's vice president.
Warner could also run for his old job again. Virginia law does not allow sitting governors to run for reelection, but it does allow them to seek the office again after a four-year hiatus. Warner, who left office with record-high approval ratings, has said repeatedly that he might want the job back someday.
Warner's statement that he will consider elective office in the future also shook up Virginia politics even as the state is watching another battle between Allen and Democrat James Webb.
Democrats who have been taking the first steps toward running for the U.S. Senate in 2008 or the governorship in 2009 now have to contend with the possibility that Warner will want one of those two jobs.
"There is a potential gorilla in the race," said former lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer (D), who served for a year as finance chief of a possible presidential bid by Warner.
Beyer, the owner of a chain of car dealerships in Northern Virginia, jokingly offered Warner a job as a mechanic if he needed one. But Beyer, a longtime friend, sounded weary and exasperated.
"All of us who were deeply and emotionally invested in him are very disappointed," Beyer said. "There's nobody in the United States better positioned to be president. But I think we all very much respected his desire to have a real life."
Warner's year-long dalliance with a run for the presidency has had its ups and downs.
Warner has been highly successful at fundraising, tapping into the venture capital community, in which he made his fortune, and topping most of the other Democratic hopefuls except Clinton. That ability helped propel him to the top of many lists of White House contenders in 2008.
His political action committee raised more than $9 million and distributed $7 million to candidates for federal and state office. It also paid for 67 trips to 28 states and five countries. His frequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire were stirring curiosity among voters.
"We all believe that he was in a strong, strong position to be a very lead contender in winning the primary," said Ray Buckley, vice chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "Often, somebody's hot one month, and then it's somebody else. For Warner to now have that buzz for 12 months was phenomenal."
But there have been difficulties as well. The New York Times Magazine put a tight, unflattering picture of Warner's face on the cover, prompting snickers. And national polls have consistently listed him as the choice of 1 or 2 percent of voters, indicating how far Warner would have to go to build recognition.
And despite Warner's belief that his brand of politics would appeal to the entire Democratic Party, pundits said his biggest challenge would be selling a moderate, bipartisan message to Democratic primary voters, especially at a time when Democrats are hungry to topple the party that will have been in power for eight years.
"I think he concluded that he couldn't win the Iowa caucuses," said one Democrat who declined to be named because he is supporting another Democratic presidential contender. "He wasn't getting any traction out there."
Geoff Garin, Warner's pollster, disputed that opinion. He said research and polling suggested that Democrats of all stripes were receptive to Warner's message.
"Every single political consideration would have had him running. There was an almost magical marriage here between the man and the moment," Garin said. "Even among those who dislike Bush the most, they want a candidate who is about hope for the future rather than just voicing their anger."
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Tim Craig and staff researchers Lucy Shackleford and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.