Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) is forming a federal political action committee and has hired a former top aide to then-Vice President Al Gore to advise him on national politics, the governor's top political aide in Virginia said.
The new PAC, which has not been named, will allow Warner to begin raising money for a possible run at the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 while he finishes his term in Virginia. The PAC will be announced formally in July or August, said Mary A. "Mame" Reiley, director of Warner's One Virginia PAC.
Reiley said Warner, a multimillionaire who is limited to one term as governor, has hired Monica Dixon, Gore'sormer deputy chief of staff, to be the federal PAC's first part-time consultant. She said Dixon will help set up meetings between Warner and Democrats across the country as he makes the transition from governor to private citizen.
"She's coming on board as an adviser to him on the national arena," Reiley said of Dixon. "She brings a wealth of national experience. We're delighted that she's coming aboard."
Dixon, who is vacationing in California, said she is "excited to be joining the governor's team."
Warner had no national profile for the first three years of his administration as he struggled initially with soaring deficits and later spent six months battling with lawmakers over what he termed tax reform. In 2004, the Republican-controlled legislature approved a $1.5 billion tax increase for the state's two-year budget over the objections of Virginia's top GOP leadership. The state later was declared the best-managed in the nation by Governing Magazine.
The tax victory -- and Sen. John F. Kerry's loss in states such as Virginia in the presidential race -- helped propel Warner to national prominence. He is often mentioned along with Sens. Kerry (Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico as possible Democratic contenders.
"Mark is seen as one of the most thoughtful, promising leaders we have in the party," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, a centrist group.
For the past year, Warner has been chairman of the National Governors Association, a position that gives him the freedom to travel the country.
Last week, he went to Iowa to prepare for the association's annual meeting in July and make the rounds of the state's top Democrats. In Iowa, Warner criticized Kerry for failing to appeal to moderates, according to the Associated Press. "I can't tell you where he ever broke with anything in Democratic orthodoxy," the AP quoted Warner as saying.
Warner would face significant disadvantages in a Democratic primary: He is little-known nationally, he is a centrist in a party where liberals dominate primaries, and much of the party establishment is lining up behind Clinton.
But Warner has qualities that could make him attractive in a general election. In recent history, governors have been far more successful than legislators in presidential races, in part because they do not have lengthy voting records that opponents can distort. And Warner has proved popular in a conservative Republican state, territory that Democrats must win if they are to regain the White House.
"If he gets in, there is a real possibility that he emerges as the primary alternative to Hillary Clinton, and there's a strong argument to be made that he would be the party's strongest conceivable general election candidate," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, who was Kerry's first presidential campaign manager.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, disagreed.
Warner "lied his way into office by promising not to raise taxes and once in office raised taxes," Norquist said Friday. "That puts him in the cross hairs of the one thing Republican politicians know how to do: crush tax-increasing Democrats."
Warner has not said whether he is going to run for president or whether he will challenge U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is up for reelection next year and is considering a bid for the White House. Allen's campaign manager, Jason Miller, said: "Whether Mark Warner is gearing up to run for the U.S. Senate or the presidency, it won't change how we're preparing for the senator's reelection."
Warner has raised millions for One Virginia, which reported a balance of $1.6 million as of April 1. But federal law prohibits the governor from spending money raised in his state PAC on federal political activity. Virginia does not put limits on campaign contributions from individuals or corporations.
Warner's new PAC will be a "federal leadership committee," a precursor to a formal exploratory committee, which would be needed to officially campaign for office.
"He's not ruling out any of his political options," Reiley said. "He'll be traveling and contributing to [other] federal candidates."
Steve Jarding, Warner's 2001 campaign manager, called the new PAC "the logical next step" for Warner. Jarding, who is finishing a book on the politics of rural America, said Warner is smart to be positioning himself as a critic of Democrats who have written off southern states.
"If Democrats don't figure out how to crack the South, we're never going to get there," Jarding said. "If that's where Warner's coming from, I'm not sure it's a bad thing."
Staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report.