For months, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has appeared to be gripped by a fear of messing up.
Presented with the opportunity of a political lifetime, a shot at being president, Warner seemed unable to risk being criticized for shifting his focus away from Virginia. His stock answer -- that he was focused on the job voters elected him to do -- prevented him from seizing the moment.
In recent days, a different Warner has emerged. He has spent more time away from Virginia, testing his message nationally. He has purposefully stepped up his criticism of the Democratic Party, gathering national media attention along the way. And he has begun assembling a political staff outside Richmond.
All that suggests that Warner, a multimillionaire accustomed to weighing risks, has finally made the calculation that he can no longer afford the luxury of remaining a full-time governor if he wants a future outside Virginia.
The big step came last week, when word leaked out that Warner had hired a part-time national political consultant and was about to set up a federal fundraising committee. It confirmed for Washington pundits that Warner is seriously considering a bid for the Democratic nomination.
Warner still declines to comment on that possibility. In a meeting with state agency heads this week, he said that during the last six months of his administration, they will be "landing the planes and having a few more take off." In Warner-speak, that means finishing the initiatives he started and possibly beginning others.
Warner has spent more time in planes himself recently, and he's getting noticed.
In Iowa, Warner bluntly criticized Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, saying that as a presidential candidate he rigidly adhered to party doctrine and failed to give moderates and independents a reason to vote for Democrats. The comments appeared in an Associated Press article and were carried across the country.
A few days later, Warner told reporters and editors at the Los Angeles Times that his party was failing to attract moderates and was out of touch with rural and small-town voters. He said recent meetings with Democratic activists and donors in California had left him with the sense that they looked down on Southerners.
"I came out saying, 'That's why America hates Democrats,' " Warner told the Times.
Earlier, Warner annoyed some Democrats in Congress for appearing to play footsie with the White House on the possibility of cuts in the Medicaid system.
Are the controversial comments just accidental?
Likely not, according to some of the people closest to Warner. One of his top aides said that Warner has realized he has six months left to make a splash before he loses the gubernatorial megaphone. And he's not going to compete with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or others in his party by being a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.
Warner's path to the White House, the adviser said, is to set himself up as the centrist, pragmatic, bipartisan candidate who can win votes beyond the traditionally Democratic areas in New York, California and the big urban centers.
Is there a danger for Warner? Absolutely.
What Warner brings, more than anything, to the national stage is a solid reputation in Virginia, among the people who elected him to the only office he has ever held. If he loses that, he's probably done for.
One of his chief rivals for the presidency someday could be Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is also said to be mulling a White House bid. Allen is all too aware of Warner's reputation in Virginia, and will be all too happy to remind voters across the nation if that reputation should sour.
Allen and Warner stood side by side together this week at a luncheon to mark the 10th anniversary of Virginia's Standards of Learning, which Allen enacted and Warner helped implement. The two were all smiles. They slapped each other's backs and spoke only nice words.
If Warner's recent actions are any indication, the warm glow is likely to fade rather quickly as the cold, hard reality dawns: Only one of them can be elected president in 2008.