The old, silver-haired vet, his voice low, said he was humbled to be in the presence of so many other veterans more worthy than himself. He saluted smartly and reported for duty:
"Petty Officer John Warner."
He's also, of course, Virginia's senior U.S. senator and a man famously at odds at times with his own Republican Party. But Monday, at a veterans event in a city dependent on the military, he was coming to the aid of GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore, and there wasn't a hint of hesitation in his rich hunt-country voice.
"General Kilgore," he said, using the fortunate honorific bestowed on those who have held the attorney general title, "you have my support. I'll be there side by side during the coming weeks."
Never mind some rather large disagreements between the two. Kilgore has, to a great extent, based his campaign on the premise that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and his would-be successor, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, were foolish to persuade the General Assembly last year to pass a budget agreement that raised $1.5 billion in taxes over two years. Warner and Kaine say the measure was necessary to fix the sorry fiscal situation left by the previous Republican administration -- polls show that the public tends to agree -- while Kilgore holds that the state's booming economy would have righted the ship without tax increases.
And the other Warner, John? He was fully on the side of the Democrats. "Politics be damned," John Warner declared as he stood with Mark Warner last year in endorsing the tax plan. "Let's consider what's best for the men and women of this great state and their families and their children." (Yes, as if it's not confusing enough that both candidates for governor have names that begin with K, Virginia also has to have unrelated Warners on both sides of the aisle.)
John Warner and Kilgore brushed aside questions Monday about their differences on the tax question, saying that different leaders can have different opinions, etc. But Warner didn't want to leave the impression that he had changed his mind. "I'll stick with the decision," he said.
To some extent, it is Warner's refusal to back the party's orthodoxy that makes him valuable at this stage of the campaign to a candidate such as Kilgore. Warner has infuriated conservative Republicans with a series of moves over his 26 years in public office: voting against Robert H. Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court; refusing to endorse his party's candidate for lieutenant governor one year; and backing the independent candidacy of J. Marshall Coleman for the Senate and ruining the campaign of GOP nominee Oliver L. North.
But at the same time, he has endeared himself to independents and plenty of Democrats, who didn't bother to run a candidate against him in his most recent campaign. That carries weight in a general election.
"He's a centrist who can assure people that Kilgore is not as far to his right as some of his Republican supporters," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who is a longtime student of the state's politics.
Adds Republican political strategist Chris LaCivita: "Because he has been independent-minded, it allows him to appeal directly to those swing voters."
Warner, a gentlemanly 78-year-old with an impossibly thick head of hair, seemed genuinely fond Monday of the Republican standard-bearer; he said he had known the 44-year-old candidate since Kilgore was "waist-high."
Kilgore's parents are powerful southwest Virginia Republicans who went to the 1978 Republican convention as Warner delegates. Warner lost the Senate nomination to conservative Richard D. Obenshain but became the party's nominee when Obenshain died in a plane crash before the election. Warner won in the closest Senate election in Virginia to that date and has been reelected since.
"John Warner is the most popular politician in Virginia, even more so than Mark Warner, and I say so because he is enduringly popular," Sabato said. Governors in Virginia can serve only one term; senators can serve for decades.
Kilgore campaign strategists would like to see John Warner more involved in the campaign and believe that the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee could be especially helpful here in the Hampton Roads region, whose economy is powered by military bases and defense spending and where public polls have shown Kaine with a slight lead.
But Sabato argues that it takes a sustained effort for a politician to lend his popularity to a protege. And at this point, it is the Democratic Warner who has worked the hardest at that -- and has the most at stake.