Mark R. Warner declared an unofficial start to his 2001 campaign for governor today by offering dispirited fellow Democrats a new formula for electoral success and a rousing vision of a Virginia "where no part of the state or no person got left behind."
With Democrats bruised by historic legislative elections that stripped them of their hold on the General Assembly, Warner used the party's fall business meeting to foreshadow a formal announcement for governor that aides said he will make within six weeks.
"I don't think we can be timid any longer," Warner, 44, an Alexandria millionaire, told nearly 200 party leaders gathered here for a two-day session.
"Wouldn't it be great if Virginia was the model for the country and the whole world for this new economy, where no part of the state or no person got left behind?" said Warner, the party's unsuccessful nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1996. "If, in Virginia, at this most amazing time in our history, we were the place that actually got it right? That's our fight, that's our cause."
Warner laid to rest nearly all doubts about his plans to seek the governorship, after what will be eight years of Republican occupancy.
A senior adviser said today that Warner may have a "sliver" of hesitancy about running because of family concerns about the rigors of a statewide campaign. But Warner yanked party elders to their feet this morning, drawing an ovation that yelled volumes about Democratic hunger for major victories at the polls.
In statewide balloting 12 days ago, Republicans, led by Gov. James S. Gilmore III, won control of both houses of the legislature by turning out the Democrats who had been lords of the House of Delegates for well over a century.
There were a few bright spots for Democrats--most of them victories in party strongholds in Northern Virginia--but as state chairman Kenneth R. Plum acknowledged to party chieftains last night, "There's no changing the headlines."
"Obviously, we are concerned," said Plum, a longtime delegate from Reston. "The story is a mixed one. . . . We are a party in transition."
Today, before a larger audience of activists, Plum sounded more upbeat, challenging "the fatalistic gloom and doom that some would force upon us."
Meanwhile, Republicans continued to exult in the returns. "It's Chuck Robb's wake," said Ed Matricardi, the state GOP's executive director, referring to two-term Sen. Charles S. Robb, who is up for reelection next year.
"The Republican Party is stronger and more unified than ever, and that doesn't bode well for the Democratic Party in general and Chuck Robb in particular," Matricardi said. "These elections--'99, 2000, 2001--are interconnected."
On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. John H. Hager and state Attorney General Mark L. Earley are running for the GOP nomination for governor.
At the Democratic gathering, there was a palpable longing for a return to better days, a yearning that Warner and Thomas J. Lehner, Robb's longtime chief of staff, sought to reach.
Standing in for his boss of six years, who was raising money in Texas, Lehner made a strong pitch for cash for the upcoming Senate campaign fight against former governor George Allen, a conservative Republican who leads in most published polls.
"Don't spend a lot of time and energy worrying about how much money they have or the latest polls," Lehner said. "If you need a reminder, just ask this man," he added, holding up a photograph of Allen and a beaming Oliver L. North, defeated by Robb in 1994.
"We want a senator who trusts women to make their own decisions," Lehner said, sounding an abortion rights theme certain to have a role next year. "We want a senator who's a workhorse and not a show horse."
Reciting Robb's military record that included action in Vietnam, Lehner said the senator "has faced bullets. He is not afraid of next year's ballots."
Warner entered to a standing ovation. "From the accounts in the press in the last two weeks, I wouldn't think there were this many Democrats left in Virginia!" he said. "I guess the reports of our demise have been perhaps a little over-exaggerated."
Warner directly confronted the humiliation of the assembly elections--"Let's face it, we took some hits"--but he tailored his message to the future, encouraging Democrats to "learn from where we won and learn from where we lost."
Warner, a former state party chairman, said Democrats must dig deeper, concentrating immediately on municipal elections this spring, building on his new effort to identify sympathetic voters with issues that transcend narrow agendas such as gun control.
His audience was more than receptive.
"I don't think there's any question he's the guy" in 2001, said Del. R. Creigh Deeds, 41, of Bath County. "He has a vision and has the resources to articulate that vision."
Dan Alcorn, a lawyer from Falls Church and chairman of the party in the 11th Congressional District, said Warner "was uplifting. He lifted spirits."
Christian Schweiger, 39, who works for the commonwealth's attorney in Winchester, said Warner's message today was identical to one that electrified party workers two weeks before the election at a local hoedown.
"It was inspirational," said Schweiger, who grew up in Alexandria. "It sounded like Governor Warner. He has left no doubt in our minds he's running."