Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner is seeking a higher national profile after his victory in the state's bitter tax and budget fight and has begun to preach a message of fiscal responsibility and political moderation to an audience beyond the commonwealth.
For more than a year, Warner (D) has resisted overtures to join the national political discussion, saying he was "focused 24/7" on the tax debate. During the drawn-out 2004 General Assembly session, he canceled appearances outside Virginia and shunned the spotlight that often accompanies being the governor of a state near Washington.
This summer promises to be different.
On Tuesday, Warner addressed state treasurers from across the nation, warning that their governments, like Virginia's, must confront what he called the "economic hangover" after the excesses of the late 1990s boom.
Last week, Warner began touting the success of his tax proposals to the editorial boards of national news organizations outside Virginia. And early next month, the governor will travel to Asia for a long-delayed international trade mission.
But perhaps the most significant change for the governor will come in July, when he becomes chairman of the National Governors Association. From that perch, Warner will speak for the nation's governors, emphasizing economic responsibility and education policy.
"He has wisely focused on his day job," said Bruce Reed, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council. "Now he's got a great story to tell."
Chairing the governors association will offer Warner the opportunity to tell that story to a much wider audience, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"It's a great position," Sabato said. "They get to have a national audience. They are the ones going to the White House, traveling around the country. He's got one and a half years left on his term. He can spend that year and a half talking about what he has achieved and setting the stage for a future political career."
That future could include running for the U.S. Senate in 2006 or 2008. Warner has been mentioned as a long shot to be the running mate of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. The governor also could be asked to join Kerry's Cabinet should Kerry win.
Warner, who cannot succeed himself as governor, still declines to talk about his political future. He insists that he has more to accomplish in Virginia.
"There's no time to take a breath," he said after the Tuesday speech. "There's only 20 months left. If we're going to push educational change and government reform, it's going to be full tilt from now until January 2006."
At the same time, he said, the story of how a Democratic governor in a Republican state passes a tax increase is "an important one to tell. A number of my colleagues from both parties have called to say: 'How'd you do that?' "
Steven J. Kantor, a private investment manager who advises Virginia and many other states, said his other clients have expressed deep curiosity about the outcome of Virginia's tax debate.
Virginia approved a $1.5 billion tax increase this month on the strength of a Warner-assembled coalition of business leaders, moderate Republicans in the House and Senate and interest groups that benefit from increased spending.
"There's a great deal of interest in the financial community and state governments," Kantor said. "Was it something that was only in Virginia? The perfect storm? Or can it be replicated?"
Nationally, politicians have begun to again take notice of Warner, who had dropped off the national radar since a 2001 campaign in which he successfully courted NASCAR fans and Alexandria liberals alike.
"People first watched him by the way he won the race in '01 -- an incredible, aggressive urban and rural campaign," said B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association. Now, she said, Warner has become "one of the premier, can-do, get-it-done governors."
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), the National Governors Association chairman, has high praise for Warner. Like Virginia's governor, Kempthorne recently won a bruising battle to increase his state's sales tax.
"He is regarded as someone of high intellect," Kempthorne said of Warner, adding that Virginia's tax battle demonstrates the governor's "tenacity and conviction."
Warner's tax-increase push also is catching the attention of anti-tax activists, who have said they view Warner's model of politics as a threat.
Stephen Moore, the national president of the Club for Growth, has said Virginia's legislature missed an opportunity to "drive a stake through the heart of Mark Warner." Moore said conservatives need to watch out for the governor.
"I think he's a dangerous character and he's a fraud," Moore said. "This is a guy who swore on a stack of Bibles when he ran for governor that he wasn't going to raise taxes."
Warner aides take Moore's criticism as a badge of honor. They said Warner will continue to increase his visibility nationally, though not in overtly partisan ways. The businessman-turned-governor rarely appears on Sunday morning talk shows, and he dislikes overly partisan events. In February, when a group of Democratic governors held a news conference to bash President Bush, Warner was noticeably absent.
But that approach could change. Mary A. "Mame" Reiley, the head of Warner's political action committee, said the governor plans to hold a fundraiser with Kerry in mid-July in Virginia. And a week later, Warner will lead his state's delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.