Would-Be Candidate Is Taking His Time

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) edged yesterday about as close to a U.S. Senate candidacy as it is possible to get without actually entering the race.

Davis, appearing on WTOP's "The Politics Program," told host Mark Plotkin that a formal announcement won't come until November but that his intention is to run for the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R).

"Right now, all systems are go," said Davis, a seven-term House member and former Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman, who has been assembling money and staff members for the contest.

If nominated, his most likely Democratic opponent would be another Northern Virginian, former governor Mark R. Warner of Alexandria, who announced his candidacy this week.

Davis cited two reasons for waiting until November. One is a reluctance to compete for voter attention with this fall's local and state legislative campaigns, one of them being waged -- although he did not mention her specifically -- by his wife, State Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax). She is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen. The congressman has been devoting significant time and energy to her race, including knocking on doors in the 34th Senate District.

The other reason is what Davis called a need to "get our party in order," a benign way of describing his looming nomination fight with former governor James S. Gilmore III, who has positioned himself as the conservative alternative to the moderate Davis. Morton C. Blackwell, a Virginia Republican National Committee member who backs Gilmore, has said Davis is "not a good fit for the conservative Republicans in Virginia."

Asked about the perception that he is too liberal, Davis said on WTOP: "In the Virginia Republican Party, it doesn't take much to be lefty."

He added that his 11 election wins in Virginia politics are an indication that he has support across the ideological spectrum.

Davis faces an important juncture next month when the Republican State Central Committee meets to decide whether to hold a convention or a primary to select a Senate nominee.

Because a convention is more likely to be top-heavy with conservative party activists sympathetic to Gilmore, Davis is pushing for a primary. He said that although he could defeat Gilmore at a convention, a primary would help boost his name recognition in his first statewide race.

He added that as a nominee he would bring a track record of success in rapidly moderating Northern Virginia. "Jim Gilmore would get wiped out in Northern Virginia," he said.

Davis also addressed the rapidly hardening conventional wisdom that Mark Warner would be difficult to beat in a general election. He said the Republican Party's principal problem, President Bush's unpopularity, will be eliminated next summer when there is a new presidential nominee. "The face of our party will change," he said, as will what he calls "the issue matrix."

"It becomes less a race about two individuals and [more about] differing philosophies," he said. Virginians will be able to focus more on whether they want Warner "to be Harry Reid's 52nd vote."

And Virginia, Davis added, "is a pretty red state outside of Northern Virginia."

If elected, Davis said he aspired to serve "in the tradition of John Warner," as a statesman unafraid to buck party orthodoxy.

"I've changed a lot in 28 years," Davis said, referring to his tenure in elective office. There was a time, he said, when "I might have said or done anything to get elected. I'm not that person anymore."

When pressed by Plotkin on the Iraq war, however, Davis was more squishy than statesmanlike. Asked about how the United States could best disengage from the conflict, Davis said: "Are we incentivizing the Iraqis to come together and do their share by staying there or leaving? In my own mind, I go back and forth on what's appropriate."

For more on Virginia politics, go tohttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics.

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