Hundreds of Virginia Democrats descended on Mark R. Warner's Northern Neck farm today as the party's hardest-working fund-raiser continued to sow seeds for the governor's race two years away.
"When we're governor, we're going to make sure every day is like this!" Warner said to friends streaming onto his sun-drenched lawn overlooking the Rappahannock River just south of this country crossroads.
Although Democratic legislators face difficult elections this November, Warner and his allies were savoring not only the picture-perfect weather but also his position as frontrunner for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 2001.
An Alexandria-based businessman who lavished millions of his own money on an unsuccessful U.S. Senate race in 1996, Warner has been methodically building a network of voters and contributors from one end of the state to another.
Warner, 44, has launched a well-publicized program linking high technology and Virginia's historically black colleges and is pursuing an initiative involving senior citizens, another prized voter bloc in statewide campaigns.
At the same time, he has quietly emerged as the Democrats' main money man, spearheading grass-roots organizing and fund-raising and sending more than $150,000 of his own to candidates throughout Virginia.
"It is safe to say he is the leader," said Mike Henry, who is overseeing the party's effort to repulse a Republican takeover of the General Assembly on Nov. 2. "He has been a true friend to many people up and down the ballot."
On Friday, Warner is scheduled to unveil a first round of computer Web sites for as many as 100 Democratic candidates, the first such effort for the state party. Many GOP candidates already have Web sites.
In an interview, Warner played down his interest in the 2001 race, taking a first-things-first approach to the races this fall and the expected reelection bid of two-term U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) next year.
"There will be some point in the future to talk about the future," Warner said. "Now is not the time."
It is, though, for many Democrats embittered by the GOP's recent victories, including its 1997 sweep of all three statewide offices.
"To me, he has really done the yeoman's task for the party," said S.W. "Sam" Meekins Jr. (D), who is running for the House of Delegates from Virginia Beach.
"He's earning his stars and bars right now," added Meekins, who has received in-kind contributions from Warner in the form of polling and phone-banking.
"He's very good for the party," added State Sen. Patricia S. Ticer, an Alexandria Democrat. "He's a doer. He's making his mark with technology. And he's gotten better as a speaker."
Because Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) is barred by law from succeeding himself, the GOP nomination is up for grabs, with Lt. Gov. John H. Hager and Attorney General Mark L. Earley already jockeying for position in their party.
Warner also may face a Democratic challenge from Charlottesville businessman L.F. Payne, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1997.
Today, a lot of the smart money was feasting on Warner's roast pig, corn on the cob and cold beer. The crowd was diverse: neighbors from nearby farms and weekend homes in King George County and the likes of lawyers John G. Milliken of Arlington County and James W. Dyke Jr. of Fairfax, both former state Cabinet officials.
"Mark's good," said Jim Smith, who is active in Democratic circles up the road in Fredericksburg. "And he's got a good chance of being the next governor."