Gov. Mark Warner surges into New Hampshire, beaming with red state credibility and teeth like mah-jongg tiles.
"Wow, what great energy," he says amid a standing ovation from a luncheon of Democratic activists. He is trailed by 10 reporters and cameramen, a Big Deal entourage, and emits the radiance of a prospective candidate packing considerable '08 momentum.
In the Granite State's perennial presidential calendar, the outgoing Virginia governor has become his party's heat magnet since his protege Tim Kaine was elected to succeed him two weeks ago. Political smarties see Kaine's win as a repudiation of President Bush and a boost to Warner's presidential ambitions and -- well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
Or let's: For there is no dreamier time to be a presidential hopeful in New Hampshire than 27 months before primary day. You are merely a "potential" candidate, subsisting on cold chicken and hot possibilities. The foliage is bright, the sun glows warm and there are no meaningful polls or fundraising benchmarks to yank a would-be Mount Rushmore subject back to the frozen earth.
"If I get this kind of reception for lunch, I'm gonna come back for dinner," Warner vows.
Alas, he's long gone for dinner, back in Richmond, "trying to do the best job I can in my time left as governor." That would be governor of Virginia, where Warner, 50, is barred by law from seeking a second four-year term and thus is, he keeps saying, "out of a job in 60 days."
But few doubt that Warner will return. Or begrudge him this excursion for breakfast with New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, or a discussion on high school dropout prevention afterward (in Nashua) or a chicken luncheon after that (in Manchester).
Friday was Warner's first appearance in New Hampshire as a Presidential Maybe. He followed seven Democrats and nine Republicans who have visited the state this year, some multiple times, according to figures tallied by James Pindell of PoliticsNH.com.
Officially, Warner says he's undecided about whether he'll run for president in 2008. He speaks in the code preferred by noncommittal candidates who -- like himself -- have also traveled to Iowa, established a national political action committee and spoken at multiple Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners across the country.
"I want to be part of the debate" and "help shape the Democratic Party's agenda," says Warner, who is sitting in the back seat of his campaign van -- or whatever one calls a vehicle that squires around a politician who wants "to be part of the debate" and "help shape the Democratic Party's agenda."
Anyway, it's all shorthand for possibility, and for a degree of ambition that's too awesome to speak of, at least this early. "Okay, so I want to apply for the most important job in the country?" Warner says with more than a hint of disbelief in his voice. "Or, arguably, the world?"
He shakes his head, squints his eyes, strokes his ample Adam's apple with his thumb.
"There's an otherworldly quality to the early visits," says Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, who ran John Kerry's presidential campaign for much of the pre-voting period. The trips are also fun and relaxed, compared with what could come later. There are no attack ads, no great scrutiny or reporters asking Warner whether his big teeth are real -- at least until last Thursday night.
"Yes, they're real," Warner says as his van heads out of Boston for New Hampshire following a talk to a group of student Democrats at Harvard.
"Horse teeth," Warner calls them.
The governor allows that he's had his teeth whitened. He then spends the next few seconds staring bug-eyed at his communications director, as if this brush of dental candor might somehow blow the whole thing up before it even starts.
Or has it started yet?
It's never too early for White House hopefuls to come to New Hampshire and flatter the locals about what Warner calls the state's "special sense of stewardship and responsibility" in the presidential process. Indeed, the first job of any candidate here is to assure voters that the single biggest peril facing the universe -- more than war, moral bankruptcy or snakeheads -- is that someone might take away the Granite State's first-primary-in-the-nation status.
At which point democracy may as well cease to exist and, more to the point, presidential candidates would cease to genuflect before the 200 or so Democratic activists who are now crammed into a Manchester function room to hear Warner.
"We will be first, by golly," shouts state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, who precedes Warner at the lectern. "And if we're not first, the nation is in trouble."
There are cheers, war whoops.
Warner's stump speech is well-honed for a national audience. He races through his bio: grew up middle class in Indiana, Illinois and Connecticut, was the first member of his family to graduate from college (George Washington University), attended Harvard Law School and helped start two failed businesses before hooking up with a fledgling cellular phone enterprise known as Nextel. One big dollar sign followed by nine digits later, Warner became one of Northern Virginia's top venture capitalists while taking periodic forays into politics -- including an unsuccessful run for the Senate against Republican John Warner in 1996.
Mark Warner, who is married and has three daughters, was elected governor in 2001, a Democratic victory in a state that hasn't supported a Democrat for president since 1964. In his speeches today, Warner emphasizes his ability to appeal to Republican voters and the need for Democrats to compete in more than just 16 states in national elections. He touts his success in the private sector and Virginia's recent designation as the "best-managed state" in a survey by Governing magazine.
"The Democratic Party has always been at its best when it's seen as the party of the future," Warner says in a line that draws nods. It behooves Democrats, he says, to reframe the debate from liberal vs. conservative to "future vs. past."
Warner is fond of the New Economy jargon of the late 1990s: biz-speak terms like "value-added," "human capital" and "space" -- as in the wireless space, or the corporate space, or the government space (all of which -- "at the end of the day" -- fall within Warner's "comfort zone").
"We need to incent our auto industry to get better fuel efficiency," he tells a Harvard student.
Warner talks fast and in a throaty voice reminiscent of Jack Kemp's. He emphasizes how it's important for a politician to be "comfortable in his own skin," although the governor can sometimes appear anything but, particularly around the media. Reporters who have covered him say that getting Warner to relax, even off the record, is like pulling horse teeth.
He evokes, at once, a supreme sense of self-confidence and an expectation that a chandelier could fall on his head at any second. He is a fidgety 6-4, speaks in halting cadences and takes long pauses before answering questions, as if his brain is churning with every potentially catastrophic permutation of his answer.
Warner often prefaces remarks by warning that he's "about to say something a lot of people might not agree with." He does this in his speech to the Harvard Democrats. As listeners brace for something controversial, Warner comes forth with the familiar refrain that Democrats can't compete in only 16 states in presidential elections. When a student follows up by asking what individual states Democrats should compete in, Warner pauses, stares at a spot on the ceiling for a few pregnant seconds before answering, finally:
"The South," he says, then mentions some "opportunities in the Midwest."
"It's a bright, beautiful day," Warner says, strolling out of a discussion on high school dropout prevention at Nashua South High School Friday. The event, attended by 50 invited educators, lasted an hour and included no mention -- by Warner or anyone else -- of any presidential notions.
But "Governor, are you running for president?" was the second question he received during a session with reporters afterward. He declared himself undecided and mentioned the "best-managed state" distinction three times in eight minutes.
The governor is accompanied on his trip by his personal aide, his Virginia communications director, another staffer from the governor's office, two advisers from his state and national political action committees, a Virginia state trooper and a Massachusetts state trooper who, for whatever reason, is driving the governor of Virginia around New Hampshire.
After his Nashua South visit, Warner is set to head to his luncheon in Manchester, except that his van is temporarily blocked by an idled school bus. So Warner's driver jerks the vehicle up onto the sidewalk to get around the bus, passing close to three students.
Two reporters in a car behind Warner witness the incident, and the governor's communications director, Ellen Qualls, who is in the back seat, promptly calls up to Warner's car. "You're creating a story here," she says, trying not to be heard by the reporters, to no avail.
And to think, Warner's career was showing such promise.
But these are forgiving days in New Hampshire. Warner is mobbed upon his arrival in Manchester. Local Democrats expected 30 activists and elected officials for lunch, but about 170 RSVPs poured in the last few days, a testament to the millionaire governor's boomlet.
"This is our chance to kill several birds with one stone," says Mame Reiley, a Warner political adviser traveling with him. "We don't want to come to New Hampshire and meet with just a few activists."
But of course the birds can't be dispatched with just one stone. They require repeated phone calls and visits and birthday cards over months, or years.
One is D'Allesandro, a self-styled kingmaker of presidential aspirants in New Hampshire. D'Allesandro welcomes Warner to Manchester, "the Queen City," and declares in a brief speech that "there are more queens in front of me than I've ever seen before in my whole life." It is unclear what D'Allesandro means by this exactly.
On his way out, Warner assures everyone that he will be in touch and that he's interested in hearing their ideas. He invites e-mails, poses for cell phone pictures and a group shot with state representatives. He collects business cards and invitations to parties, forums and an annual dinner in April, a mere 22 months before the primary.
Someone hands Warner a box filled with chicken and rice for his ride to Boston's Logan Airport. He is standing beside his van, and a few feet from a car plastered with Howard Dean stickers from years ago -- actually less than two years ago; it just seems longer.
"I'll be back," Warner says, invoking his counterpart in California, and a New Hampshire state rep wishes him luck on his "job search."
The governor's van pulls out of the parking lot -- and New Hampshire -- without further incident.