Among the accolades heaped on Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner in recent months, one of them brings the Democrat particular pleasure: The upcoming issue of American Rifleman magazine features Warner's photo, right there next to Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's, lauding both for signing "pro-gun" bills into law.
For Warner, who craves evidence that he's a different kind of Democrat, it couldn't get any sweeter than that.
Even as he leads his state's party to the Democratic National Convention this week -- to nominate a candidate he has supported from the start -- people close to Warner have said he remains an uneasy partisan whose success at home is a product of close relationships with the state's Republicans and a willingness to embrace conservative principles.
"He's more comfortable in a bipartisan situation . . ," said Mame Reiley, director of Warner's political action committee. "If he thinks it's too far to the left, he's not comfortable with it."
That reality makes this week awkward for Warner as he ventures from Virginia's overtly conservative capital into a sea of flag-waving Democrats. Soon after arriving in Boston on Sunday morning, Warner headed straight for his comfort zone: a wonkish policy lunch with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
In a two-hour question-and-answer session with reporters at a site overlooking Boston's Fenway Park, Warner urged Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is poised to receive his party's presidential nomination, to follow his lead in Virginia by adopting a message of fiscal discipline and avoiding "hot button" social issues.
"I hope the ticket continues to embrace this more centrist approach," Warner said as many of his fellow Democratic conventioneers marched in a parade in Cambridge. The Democratic Party, Warner said, needs to "put the context of the political debate not in the traditional left-right debate."
Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, has called Warner the first of a new crop of Democratic governors who have broken the political code and figured out how to appeal to moderates and Republicans without alienating liberals.
In his 2001 campaign, Warner backed gun rights, defused the abortion issue and emphasized fiscal responsibility. Since taking office, he has signed conservative social legislation, including bills allowing "In God We Trust" to be displayed in courtrooms, even as he pushed through a tax increase to benefit schools and state workers.
"How to run in areas that haven't been favorable to Democrats? He basically defined it," From said. "That's one of the other reasons he has a bright future in this party."
Warner's stock in the Democratic Party shot up this year after he succeeded in doing what experts believed impossible: Push increased taxes through a legislature dominated by Republicans.
He did it by courting moderate GOP members in both chambers. He took them to private, one-on-one dinners. He played basketball with a few and cut deals with others. He invited them to his executive mansion and avoided vitriolic rhetoric.
In the end, he created a new coalition of Democrats, centrist Republicans, business executives and state employees that overwhelmed the anti-tax opposition among the state's Republican leadership.
His success earned him the respect of labor unions because the tax increase brought added investment in schools and public safety and pay raises for teachers, firefighters, police and state workers.
Nationally, union leaders speak warmly about Warner, despite their differences with him on some traditional issues.
"Whether there's a specific issue here or there where he finds himself in contrast with the traditional Democratic constituencies, they recognize his great skills," said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The gun issue is an example, Schaitberger said. Many of his union members are gun owners who agree with Warner's support for some gun rights. "I appreciate that," Schaitberger said. "I recognize that as a fresh look from the Democratic Party at how it needs to grow and expand beyond its natural constituency."
Warner's success in Virginia, and his early support for Kerry, has garnered him a featured spot at the convention.
He is scheduled to speak Thursday night, within hours of Kerry's acceptance speech -- a coveted time. The party even assigned Warner a "VIP handler" to help schedule him on network television interviews, promoting him as the face of the new Democratic Party. As the week started, interviews with CNN and MSNBC's Chris Matthews were planned.
"He bet well on the presidential race," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and pundit. "He picked a winner."
But for Warner, who is constitutionally barred from succeeding himself as governor for a second term, the question remains: What does he do next?
Some in the party are urging him to run for the U.S. Senate. The state's junior senator, George Allen (R), 52, is up for reelection to a second term in 2006; the senior senator, John W. Warner (R), 77, could choose to run for a sixth term in 2008.
If Kerry wins, some believe he might offer Warner a Cabinet position or perhaps an ambassadorship. Either job would allow Warner to stay in public service while he plans another run for elective office.
"Mark Warner has manufactured a ticket to the future that, surprisingly, will be good for some of the best rides," Sabato said. "I just don't know which ones."