A modest-sized Democratic fundraiser in Gov. Mark R. Warner's home town of Alexandria wouldn't normally attract much attention, even if the candidate does have presidential ambitions.
But then, last night's gathering of about 200 people at the Old Town Hilton wasn't meant to raise money for Warner. It was for the person some people think could be standing in his way: U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The very early favorite in the struggle to find a winning Democratic candidate for 2008, Clinton dropped by the Northern Virginia fundraiser, which was hosted by state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer and other Alexandria Democrats.
Clinton told the crowd that she worries about the future of the country under Republican rule.
"We have this huge deficit, which cedes our financial sovereignty. We're living on borrowed time and borrowed money," she said. "How did we get so far off the track of the kind of future we deserve to have?"
The fundraiser was officially for Clinton's reelection race in New York next year. But Clinton is appearing across the country in preparation for what Democratic strategists believe will be an aggressive campaign to take the office her husband held for eight years.
Clinton's decision to raise money in Warner's home town put Virginia Democrats in an awkward spot. Some are wowed by Clinton. But many of the same Democrats have privately pledged to support Warner if he decides to make a run for the nomination.
This month, Warner confirmed that he plans to set up a federal political action committee and that he has hired a former top aide to Al Gore as an adviser on the national political scene.
"Senator Clinton is widely admired in Northern Virginia. All of us wish her the best in her reelection," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington), who said a scheduling conflict prevented his attendance last night. "But I'm certain that if the governor decides to run, he would have overwhelming support among Northern Virginia Democrats."
Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax) said, "Let's just say [Warner] isn't going to have to romance me to join his campaign team."
Clinton praised Warner, wishing him a speedy recovery from a broken hand "so he's back in fighting shape and fighting spirit as soon as possible."
Clinton is popular among the party's base, including unions and self-described liberals. She has tried to broaden her appeal by working with such Republicans as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) to pass legislation on electronic medical records. She has star quality and connections that make her a fundraising juggernaut.
Warner is a centrist who has built a reputation for working with the GOP. In recent months, he has been highly critical of liberals in the party. He's also a multimillionaire whose ability to self-finance a campaign is drawing attention.
"Mark Warner and Hillary Clinton are two of the leading potential candidates for president," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network. "This [fundraiser] is a reminder for Governor Warner that if he runs, he may have some formidable adversaries."
A few of Warner's political advisers, including Mary A. "Mame" Reiley, director of Warner's One Virginia political action committee, attended Clinton's fundraiser.
"I love her. She's a great senator," said Reiley, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee's women's caucus. Reiley said she's holding out hope that Clinton and Warner could be on the ticket together in 2008.
"Maybe Warner-Clinton," she said with a grin.