By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007
RICHMOND, Sept. 13 -- With former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner now a candidate for the U.S. Senate next year, Republicans stepped up efforts Thursday to figure out a strategy to defeat the popular Democrat.
Warner, 52, kicked off his campaign Thursday in an online video in which he said he has the experience, record and temperament to reach across party lines and bring bipartisan reforms to Washington.
"Virginians know politics as usual is just not getting the job done, and with your help, we will," Warner said on the video, posted on www.MarkWarner2008.com. "I've decided the way I can get our country back on the right track is to serve in the United States Senate."
Minutes after Warner unveiled his video, the National Republican Senatorial Committee fired back with its own video on a Web site, www. dontmarkwarner.com, that accused Warner of breaking a 2001 campaign promise not to raise taxes. With help from Republicans, Warner pushed through a $1.4 billion tax increase in 2004 to close a budget shortfall.
"Make no mistake about it, Mark Warner is a politician who can't be trusted to keep his promises to voters," said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the campaign committee, which helps elect Republican candidates nationwide.
In an interview, Warner called the committee "Washington attack dogs."
"The Washington types can shoot those bombs across Virginia all day long, but I think the people of Virginia know what we did, what we did was right, and I am anxious to talk about that," said Warner, who is also vowing to end the war in Iraq, reshape the nation's energy policies and work to restore America's standing in the world.
The GOP's quick response to Warner's candidacy underscores what will be an aggressive push by the party to hold on to the Senate seat that John W. Warner, who is retiring, has held since 1978.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which helped lure Warner into the race, released a statement Thursday suggesting that the former governor was virtually unbeatable in a statewide race. A Washington Post poll last October found that Warner had a 73 percent approval rating among Virginians.
Despite Warner's popularity, Republicans say they can build a winning campaign in traditionally conservative Virginia by focusing on national security, illegal immigration and taxes.
Warner's announcement Thursday appeared to energize some party leaders, who are still reeling from James Webb's narrow win over incumbent George Allen in last year's Senate race.
"We are not backing down from anybody, at any time, at any place, anywhere," said Wayne Ozmore, a Republican activist from suburban Richmond.
But the GOP faces a potentially divisive battle for the nomination between Rep. Thomas M. Davis III and former governor James S. Gilmore III. Both are likely to seek the nomination, but neither is expected to announce plans until after the Nov. 6 state elections. The Virginia Republican State Central Committee will meet Oct. 13 to decide whether to hold a nominating convention or a primary.
Davis said in a statement Thursday, "[T]here are no coronations in Virginia politics." If Mark Warner is elected, Davis said, he would "become another vote for [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid's policies in the U.S. Senate."
Warner is not likely to face a serious opponent for the nomination, giving him time to prepare for next year's campaign, including raising money. But Gilmore and Davis face more immediate challenges with the question of a convention or primary to choose the GOP nominee.
Any registered voter can vote in a GOP primary, but conventions are exclusive affairs, which have traditionally been dominated by conservatives. Davis's advisers are advocating a primary while Gilmore wants a convention.
Gilmore is trying to position himself as the only true conservative in the race. Gilmore supporters say Warner, who was popular with rural voters as governor, can be defeated next year only if the Republican base is riled up.
"We've got to get back the Republican Party to where it was, and that is, running a strong conservative ticket," said Linwood M. Cobb, chairman of the Seventh District Republican Committee of central Virginia. "Tom Davis has strayed from the reservation on too many votes."
Davis, who already has $1 million in the bank, says he is the most electable candidate. He is widely perceived as more moderate than Gilmore and is a proven vote-getter in Northern Virginia, where Democrats have been making steady inroads.
Some Republicans say Davis will be rewarded because he has spent years laying the groundwork for a statewide bid by dishing out campaign cash to local and state GOP officials across the state.
"Tom Davis has been out all over Virginia helping people," said Tucker Watkins, a party leader in Southern Virginia. "I have talked to a lot of hard-core conservatives who are for Tom Davis."
Gilmore, who was governor from 1998 to 2002 and briefly ran for president this year, is also being criticized by some party activists who say they were shunned by his administration after he was first elected.
"It seemed as if when they got in the castle, they raised up the drawbridge and made fun of you from across the moat," said one longtime party activist, who declined to be identified because the activist still works closely with Gilmore's top advisers.
Davis faces his own challenges, including his past support for some tax increases and gun control measures.
Morton C. Blackwell, a Virginia Republican National Committee member who supports Gilmore, said Davis is "is not a good fit for the conservative Republicans in Virginia."
David Avella, a Northern Virginia GOP activist who supports Davis, countered, "I will say an embarrassing presidential campaign that ended in debt is not the traditional path to getting to the U.S. Senate."