Va., Warner on National Stage

Democratic Senatorial candidate Mark R. Warner has led a successful career in both Virginia politics and the national political arena.
By Anita Kumar and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 14, 2008

RICHMOND, Aug. 13 -- Wednesday's announcement that former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner will deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention this month thrusts him and the battleground state of Virginia further into the national spotlight.

The high-profile speech broadcast to millions has in recent years been given by up-and-coming national figures, including this year's presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, in 2004, former U.S. representative Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee in 2000 and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a possible vice presidential candidate this year, in 1996.

Warner, a popular former governor who flirted with running for president, is widely considered the front-runner to replace retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R) in a race that Democratic Party officials are hoping could help further solidify Virginia's gradual blue shift.

"Like Barack Obama, Mark Warner is not afraid to challenge the status quo to bring people together and get things moving," said Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe. "It's that kind of spirit and innovation that resulted in his selection as keynote speaker on a night when we will be discussing how to renew America's promise."

Three months before the November election, Democrats and Republicans are pouring money, paid staff and other resources into Virginia, considered one of the nation's newest battleground states. On Wednesday, Obama announced he is opening his 33rd office in Virginia.

No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Virginia since 1964. But Democrats won the past two gubernatorial elections and a high-profile Senate race in 2006. Now, Virginia residents are seeing advertising and candidate visits that haven't been seen in a generation.

"I think the focus is, in fact, Virginia," Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in the District, said of the decision to have Warner deliver the convention's keynote address. "It's a reflection of their commitment to Virginia."

Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), co-chairman of Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in Virginia, said he agrees that the Democrats have chosen Warner because of Virginia. Saxman said, however, that he does not think it will give them an edge.

"The interest is not here. It's not showing up in polls," he said. "It's close, but we're up."

With Virginia's 13 electoral votes potentially critical to the presidency, the Obama campaign considered Warner and Virginia's two Democratic statewide elected officials, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Sen. James Webb, for vice president. Warner and Webb took themselves out of the running, and Wednesday's news makes it unlikely that Kaine will be chosen.

Warner is facing his predecessor as governor, James S. Gilmore III (R), in the fight for the Virginia Senate seat. Warner has a wide lead in most polls, but Gilmore campaign officials say Warner's selection as keynote speaker won't help him at home.

Ana Gamonal, a Gilmore spokeswoman, said Warner's appearance in front of "20,000 hard-line liberal Democrats" would not appeal to Virginia's more conservative voters. "What do you say to that crowd that will resonate to the people of Virginia?"

Democrats say they hope Warner, who is not known for being an especially dynamic speaker, will help close the deal with Virginia voters. More than any Virginia politician in recent times, Warner has demonstrated appeal to both suburbanites in fast-growing Northern Virginia as well as less-affluent voters in the rural communities.

A wealthy venture capitalist who co-founded Nextel, Warner, 53, won the governor's mansion by casting himself as a moderate Democrat who would bring a common-sense business approach to the state while staying above the partisan fray. He left office with a high approval rating and was considered a legitimate presidential candidate. But he surprised supporters by dropping out of that race, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

The former governor's advisers say he will talk for about 20 minutes Aug. 26 about his success as governor from 2002 to 2006, bringing jobs and economic growth to communities across rural Virginia.

"I am excited about this chance to showcase some of the initiatives we launched here in Virginia and the results we achieved in our effort to help people compete in a changing economy," Warner said in a statement.

Saxman said he hopes Warner will not try to take credit for Virginia's economic successes. Saxman said the state, and specifically Northern Virginia, benefited from defense spending for the Iraq war.

During Warner's 2001 race for governor, he became the first statewide Democratic candidate in a generation to win a majority of the vote in rural Virginia. His success followed an aggressive years-long campaign to reach out to those voters, in which he went as far as sponsoring a NASCAR vehicle.

Beside reaching out to voters in economically depressed rural communities, such as those in the Appalachian region, where Obama performed poorly in the primaries, Warner's selection might signal an effort by Obama to reach out to the business community.

"Barack Obama's natural base is not the business community, yet probably there is no Democrat more respected by American business leadership than Mark Warner," said former Virginia lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Warner ally who owns several car dealerships in Northern Virginia.

But many Virginia Republicans who support Warner in his Senate race plan to back McCain in the presidential race.

Northern Virginia developer John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., a Republican who supports Warner, said he doubts that Warner can help Obama win over moderate Republicans. "A lot of us, including me, supported Mark because we did not like the direction the state Republican Party was headed," Hazel said.

"The far right has dominated the [Virginia] Republican Party in recent years. Both Mark and Tim Kaine were alternatives to that on the Virginia scene, but I don't know that that transfers support to the national Democratic ticket."

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