The group of veterans -- all Republicans, all conservatives -- sat in a smoky bar lambasting presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), deriding Democrats in general and listening to televisions blaring Fox News.
Then the subject of Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner came up.
"A good guy," one said.
"Turned the state around," another agreed. Heads nodded.
If Warner ran for some other office, several said, they'd probably vote for him again.
Entering the twilight of his four-year term, Warner is as popular as any modern Virginia governor has been. Despite -- or maybe because of -- his successful bid to raise taxes this year, public polls say close to 60 percent of the state's residents approve of him; some private polls conducted by both parties put the number well above 70.
In Virginia Beach and Danville, Northern Virginia and Roanoke, Warner has crafted an image as someone who jealously guards the state's financial condition and is willing to work with anyone -- Republican or Democrat -- to maintain financial integrity. His allies say the image reflects his core beliefs; his detractors call it a clever concoction.
Either way, it seems to be working.
While he is constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Warner could run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 or 2008 or run for president some day. And he occasionally muses about returning to the governorship after the required four-year break. Unless his last year is a disaster, he would enter those contests as an extremely popular politician.
But the popularity comes with a price: Warner is being called upon to lend his appeal to other candidates and political causes, some of which are highly partisan and have the potential to undercut the image of moderation he has spent years developing.
"He's definitely walking a tightrope, and most of the time he doesn't fall off," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who is one of Warner's chief political adversaries. "He's constantly under attack from those who want him to be more partisan. But constantly, he's walking that tightrope."
Warner's balancing act was evident last week, as the businessman-turned-governor struggled with the final, highly charged negotiations with Major League Baseball over building a baseball stadium in Loudoun County.
Warner is a dealmaker who a decade ago invested some of his personal fortune in an early effort to lure baseball to the state. As the battle between Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia heated up, Warner was on the phone repeatedly, trying to help fashion a final package.
But Warner and his advisers say they also saw the dangers of an all-out push for baseball: Residents of southwest and Southside Virginia, where jobs are scarce, would see few benefits. And a financial package that looked too generous or too risky would threaten his image as a fiscal conservative.
So Warner supported the stadium effort though opposing the plan to finance it by the state guaranteeing millions in borrowing.
In the end, Virginia lost the team. But Warner's confidants say they believe the governor won.
"If the minute you get a little money in the bank you buy a toy instead of health care for kids, it makes all the other work you did to show you are a fiscal conservative a little suspect," said Steve Jarding, Warner's former campaign manager and now a professor of politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government
The presidential campaign, too, has been tricky for Warner.
An early supporter, Warner says he has a deep affection for Kerry and supports him wholeheartedly. But Warner has not been the whirlwind campaigner he was during his own campaign. His efforts for Kerry have been carefully designed to fit his statewide image.
Warner has not denounced President Bush, and he has not participated in highly partisan rallies or events. Instead, he has granted radio interviews, held fundraisers and focused his comments on his belief that Kerry's election would help stem the burgeoning federal deficit.
"It's not who I am," Warner said, referring to other Democratic governors who have adopted a more aggressive, partisan tone. "There would have been a lot of surprise and dismay if I'd gotten elected and been some flaming partisan."
Kerry campaign officials say they are happy with the support they have received from Warner. The campaign spent $2 million on staff and advertising in the state before ending its television spots last month.
"I think I have a handle on why he's popular and where he can speak with the most credibility," said Lawrence H. Framme III, the chairman of Kerry's campaign in Virginia. "If he was out there bouncing around every place every weekend, screaming John Kerry, John Kerry, it would be counterproductive because it would hurt his credibility. When he does speak, people listen."
Next year, Warner will face another challenge: how to support Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in his race for governor against Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.
There's no question that he will, Warner says. His advisers say that the best way to secure the governor's legacy is to elect a successor who will continue the policies Warner put in place. But it is unclear just how Warner participates in a bruising campaign without absorbing some of the political damage. Griffith predicts it will be a challenge.
"Merely supporting [Kaine] doesn't hurt," Griffith said. "But if he really gets out there and campaigns hard, it's going to damage his public perception."
Others said they believe Warner has little to lose in supporting Kaine. Jarding said the public "in fact, appreciates and respects his opinion." And U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who has attempted to balance partisanship with his centrist reputation at home, said Warner's popularity in the state is high enough that there is little risk in campaigning for Kaine.
"Mark is an earnest, likable guy who sketched out what he wanted to do and did it. People like that," Davis said.
But, he added: "It is always tricky. It's always a balancing act." I've always said it's a very fine line between having 80-20 popularity to having 20-80 when you're in the center. You are only a couple of decisions away from reversing the numbers."