There was Democrat Mark Warner, all teeth, smiling grandly. And next to him stood Republican George Allen, ruddy-faced and grinning, too. Surrounded by reporters at the Richmond Marriott hotel last month, the pair might have been taken for best buddies as they celebrated the success of Virginia's tough school standards.
Allen, Virginia's junior senator, slapped his arm around Warner's shoulders and sang the governor's praises: "We may be in different parties," he said as Warner nodded, "but it's great, actually, for Virginians to know there is that commonality there."
Well, sure, but how deep does it go? Picture, now, fast-forwarding three years. It's 2008. National Republicans decide to nominate tobacco-chewing, bolo-tie-wearing Allen, a pro-lifer who spouts endless sports analogies, for president. Democrats, meanwhile, pick big-bucks, high-tech, NASCAR-loving Warner to compete for the nation's highest elected office. Suddenly, the two back-slapping Virginia pols are locked in a do-or-die battle for the presidency -- and the Old Dominion, with its 13 electoral votes, is at the center of the battle.
Sound crazy? Okay, full disclosure: That scenario may turn out to be nothing more than the wishful imaginings of Virginia's small corps of political reporters, professional pundits and campaign consultants.
And yet, an increasing number of national political pros who owe no allegiance to the commonwealth are offering the two politicians' names as leading candidates for the nominations of their respective parties. In April, the National Journal named Allen as the most likely GOP nominee, while more recently, Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore conceded that some believe Warner is "the [Democratic] party's strongest conceivable general election candidate."
And 84 years after Old Dominion native Woodrow Wilson left 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Allen and Warner both seem eager to measure the White House windows for new draperies. The two are giving speeches in important primary states, courting their respective party activists and raising money. Warner recently set up a new national political action committee. Allen just got back from a jaunt to New Hampshire.
If everything worked out just so -- and the odds are still stacked against it -- the pair could face each other in the ultimate Virginia showdown in 2008, ensuring a ninth Virginia presidency and a new resurgence of influence in national politics.
What would it mean for the Mother of Presidents, who earned her matronly nickname by producing four of the nation's first five presidents, to be pregnant again? Not since former governor L. Douglas Wilder took a shot at the Democratic nomination in 1992 has a Virginian sought the presidency. Virginian William Henry Harrison battled Henry Clay, who was born in the Old Dominion before moving to Kentucky, for the Whig nomination in 1839, but never have two of the state's politicians won competing party nominations.
If it happened in 2008, Virginia would instantly become "political ground zero" in the battle between red and blue America, says Steve Jarding, Warner's former campaign manager and the author of an upcoming book on Southern politics. And whoever wins would flood the state with billions of dollars in Washington pork. "Virginia wins, Virginia just got rich," Jarding says.
Not only rich, but famous. Or would that be infamous?
A Warner-Allen contest would spark a sudden interest in Virginia and its 400-year history -- good and bad. The Cradle of Democracy, yes, but also the heart of the Confederacy and the birthplace of massive resistance to integrated schools. Today, Northern Virginia is wealthy from the Internet and government contracting. But Southside is poor, struggling and out of work. Norfolk is home to the world's largest naval base, but southwest Virginia is home to coal towns whose glory days are long since past.
The attention from reporters would be "proctoscopic," jokes Virginia's leading talking head, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "Not just for the candidates, but for everyone. There is a lot of scar tissue in Virginia that could be picked open. Race is only the most obvious" sore point.
Like Bill Clinton's Arkansas, Michael Dukakis's Massachusetts or George W. Bush's adopted state of Texas, the Old Dominion would become a showcase and a target, as both Allen and Warner used it to tell their own political stories.
Allen's Virginia would be the one where Republicans overcame a century of one-party Democratic rule to require common-sense welfare reform, establish minimum school standards and abolish parole. The state Allen led as governor in the mid-1990s, he would remind voters, is home to fundamentalist preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and voters who care deeply about family values and lower taxes and guns.
Warner's Virginia, by contrast, would be the place where Democrats rescued the state budget from a Republican-created financial disaster by working with moderates in both parties to enable consistent spending on schools, police, health care and colleges. In his Virginia, Warner will say, common sense won out over religious extremism and political partisanship.
Both narratives would be attacked, of course, because neither can exist, comfortably, alongside the other. Chris LaCivita, one of the behind-the-scenes creators of the Swift boat ads that pounded 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, is a Virginia consultant and an Allen devotee. While taking care not to buy into the scenario of Warner and Allen as the nominees, he nonetheless cackles with glee at the prospect of running Allen's attack against Warner.
He predicts an economic boom for campaign consultants and direct mail firms on both sides, who would plaster the state with posters, fliers and bumper stickers assaulting the other side's record and positions. "The printing industry would just go through the freakin' roof," he says.
For that to happen, of course, Democrats first have to choose Warner as their best hope to wrench the White House away from the Republicans by attracting rural, Southern voters. And the GOP must pick Allen to maintain the alliance of economic and cultural conservatives that has given them the edge in the last two presidential elections.
Neither Warner nor Allen can claim a true Virginia birthright. Warner was born in Indianapolis; Allen in Southern California. But Virginia has adopted both of them, and will be quick to claim credit if either should be elected.
Allen is better known, nationally; it seems one can't turn on CNN some days without seeing him commenting on energy policy, terrorism or judges. But the Republican senator from Virginia faces a long list of potential GOP adversaries, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Senate majority leader Bill Frist.
Warner is on a short list for Democrats, but he's a long shot -- a virtual unknown outside of Virginia, whose party seems transfixed by the possibility of nominating Sen. Hillary Clinton. Even so, Warner's wildly popular at home, and he has a personal fortune to boot.
It's actually a bit of a surprise that the parties haven't turned to Virginia sooner. The state's one-term-at-a-time limit for governors makes the Richmond Capitol a machine that churns out experienced politicians every four years who have almost nowhere to go. The Virginia landscape is littered with former governors -- Democrat Chuck Robb and Republican Linwood Holton come to mind -- who might have been reelected easily had the state constitution allowed it.
And the 12th-largest state is easily a better parallel for the nation than Iowa or New Hampshire, which are crucial filters during primary fights in both parties. It has fast-growing exurbs and sprawl fueled by high-tech companies. It has aging, urban cities and large military communities. There are towns impoverished by overseas competition and pockets that resemble nothing so much as the Deep South.
For now, Virginia may be, as the slogan goes, for lovers.
But give her some time. By 2008, two armies of out-of-state volunteers, campaign consultants, media buyers and strategists may have descended on the Old Dominion, trailed by the ever-growing number of interest groups and thousands of journalists from around the world. If so, they will all discover the joys of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, the Buena Vista Labor Day parade, and most importantly, the Shad Planking, Virginia's most venerable political picnic.
Virginia, they just might say then, is for voters. Hmmm. A new bumper sticker. We can dream, can't we?
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Mike Shear is a Richmond correspondent for The Post.