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'Family' Reasons? Theories Abound on Warner's Exit

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

RICHMOND -- What's the real reason?

That's the question everyone has been asking me since former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner announced suddenly last week that he will not be running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

Warner, who had done everything but announce his candidacy, stepped back from the brink of an all-out presidential campaign, citing what so many politicians do: a desire to spend more time with his family, in this case his wife and three daughters.

There is, his aides said, simply nothing more to it than that.

But almost no one I know has been willing to accept that as the complete answer. Whether friends and family, or Warner's political adversaries, or anonymous pundits who send me e-mail, there are few people who think Warner told the entire truth about his surprise decision.

As Grover Norquist , a conservative foe of Warner's, put it: "I'll believe that when politicians start saying they are running for office because they want to spend less time with their families."

It is true that Warner's wife, Lisa Collis , has never been enthusiastic about a national campaign. Warner said last week that he had nudged her from "negative to neutral." And his daughters are teenagers now, a handful for anyone. Even so, he said, they would have been supportive if he had gone forward.

But if family is not the entire reason, what is?

For some, the first thing that comes to mind is some sort of scandal he wants to keep hidden. In this era of skepticism, perhaps it's no surprise that people would jump to that conclusion.

Perhaps the scandal-a-day headlines from Washington are too much for people to accept a decision such as Warner's at face value. But since he made the announcement, not a whiff of scandal has emerged.

So what does that leave? Perhaps, despite his protestations to the contrary, Warner's decision was a cold, calculated one made after determining that the odds were against his winning.

I've heard this theory now several times from people who are close to Warner, and it makes me think there's something to it, even though Warner's pollster, Geoff Garin , denied it on the day the former governor made his announcement.

The theory goes this way:

A year ago, when Warner was leaving office and thinking about his future, the political world looked like an inviting place for a moderate Democrat whose message has always been more about compromise than passion.

Having lost the presidency again in 2004, Democrats at the time were hungry for a victory, even if that meant accepting someone such as Warner, who didn't exactly sound like a rabid partisan. At speeches in Arizona, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in 2005, potential primary voters seemed eager to vote for Warner.

But since then, the political atmosphere has changed.

Democrats are now on the brink of taking control of Congress, and President Bush is back on his heels, defending the Republican party against charges on such issues as a bungled war and personal ethics lapses. Now Democrats are thinking that they've got the momentum.

If that's true, maybe they don't need someone such as Warner.

If the Democrats take over Congress, then Warner's ability to work with Republicans to get something done doesn't seem so necessary to his party. Democrats can nominate a deeply partisan candidate whose views parallel their own.

Is that what happened? Did Warner decide he couldn't win? We may never know for sure.

But one thing seems certain: We haven't seen the last of him. One person close to Warner said this week that he might just spend the next year campaigning quietly to be the Democrats' pick for vice president. It would be a low-risk, out-of-the-spotlight kind of campaign that has none of the downsides of a presidential bid.

We will know sometime in the spring or summer of 2008 whether that succeeds. In the meantime, we'll all just have to wonder why.

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