U.S. Sen. Mark Warner , center, needed rural Virginia voters to support him when he ran for governor in 2001. That may not be true in this year’s Senate race. ( Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

— Turkey hunting, NASCAR and a bluegrass campaign ditty: not the most obvious path to the governor’s mansion for a multimillionaire raised in Connecticut. Yet it worked for Mark R. Warner, running in Virginia in 2001, and still looks like a stroke of genius to many an admiring Democrat.

It’s up to Steve Jarding, manager of that campaign, to set the record straight.

“We weren’t geniuses at all. We were desperate,” Jarding said. “We had to figure out how to get votes in Southside and all of rural Virginia or we weren’t going to win.”

Today, as Warner seeks a second term in the U.S. Senate in a deeply changed Virginia, rural voters are not nearly as receptive to Democrats as they used to be — and Democrats no longer need them.

Explosive population growth in the Washington suburbs and near-stagnant rural numbers have allowed other Democrats — President Obama, U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine and Gov. Terry McAuliffe — to win with little support outside of Northern Virginia and other urban centers.

Virginia Democrats banking on urban voters

All of which helps explain how a man who long ago branded himself a “radical centrist” found himself on a debate stage this summer celebrating gay marriage, injecting abortion and birth control into the discussion, and pushing for a higher minimum wage. Warner even went after his opponent, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, for avoiding taking a position on climate change.

In other words, Virginia has changed so much that Mark Warner has changed, too.

Partisan shift in approach

Warner has not executed a dramatic about-face so much as he has begun weaving bits of highly partisan flash into his old, more moderate appeal.

He continues to sell himself as a pragmatic, bipartisan dealmaker focused on economic development. On a spin through Southside Virginia this week, he talked up the ways he has disagreed with Obama — such as his support for letting Virginia open up its coastline to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

And when Warner met Gillespie for their first debate at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia late last month, the Democrat made his usual overtures toward rural Virginians, with lots of mentions of moderate positions on energy, federal spending and foreign affairs.

But with just three minutes left in the question-and-answer segment, in the middle of a discussion on same-sex marriage (which Gillespie opposes and Warner has publicly supported since early 2013), the Democrat sharply pivoted to abortion and birth control.

Warner said Gillespie, who opposes abortion in most cases, would seek to ban not only abortion but also “certain common forms of contraception.”

Then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner waves a checkered flag as he and NASCAR chief executive George Pyne, center right, rally with NASCAR supporters in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

“I respect women’s reproductive health. He would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade,” Warner said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Warner also said Gillespie supports “personhood legislation,” which would define a fertilized egg as a human. Abortion rights groups argue that such legislation could be used to outlaw common forms of contraception that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, such as IUDs and some types of birth-control pills.

Warner’s campaign said those assertions were based on the fact that the Republican platform adopted in 2004, during Gillespie’s tenure as party chairman, called for both a personhood amendment and for overturning Roe v. Wade.

Gillespie has tried to bat down the “war on women” themes that Virginia Democrats have used against Republicans in recent years. He said Warner was inventing positions for him, and he made a surprise call for letting adults buy birth-control pills without a prescription.

Warner also went after Gillespie for not taking a clear position on whether human activity is contributing to climate change and for opposing a minimum-wage increase — issues that, until recently, were avoided more by Democrats than by Republicans in business-friendly Virginia.

The senator’s travels reveal a similar pattern.

In May and June, he popped up in Danville, Martinsville and Wise County, an Appalachian coal-mining community on the Kentucky border. And this week, he hit the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, near the North Carolina line.

But July had him mostly in Northern Virginia and Richmond. And with the final stretch of the campaign fast approaching, it would be difficult for him to devote anything close to the 45 days he spent in Southside and southwest Virginia in 2001.

A difficult balance

That’s especially true given the outsize political importance that Northern Virginia has acquired since then — and the necessity for both candidates to spend lots of time there.

The region was so different in 2001, 13 years ago, that Warner was able to win the election without carrying Loudoun and Prince William counties. The two Washington exurbs’ combined population was 450,000 in a state of 7 million, and Warner’s strong performance in the inner suburbs, the cities and along the state’s southern border more than made up for the deficit.

By the time McAuliffe came along last year, Loudoun and Prince William had become must-win bellwethers, with more than 788,000 residents in a state of 8.2 million. The two counties accounted for nearly 10 percent of Virginians, up from 6 percent in 2001.

McAuliffe got clobbered last year in Southside and southwest, two regions Warner won 13 years ago. But because Northern Virginia had grown tremendously bigger and bluer, McAuliffe was able to more than make up ground there, winning the Washington area by more than twice the margin that Warner had in 2001.

Those trends might look like pure electoral gravy for Warner, who left the governor’s office with soaring approval ratings and remains the state’s most popular politician. But Warner has probably lost support in what is now bright-red rural Virginia. At the same time, his moderate record might not inspire the heavy Democratic turnout in the cities and suburbs that put Obama, Kaine and McAuliffe over the top.

As a result, he is actually courting both worlds this year. And trying to appeal to the Democratic base without alienating rural Virginians has required a sometimes awkward balancing act.

Consider how he has navigated the Affordable Care Act, neither fully renouncing his vote for Obama’s troubled signature achievement nor giving it a full-throated defense. He has acknowledged the health-care initiative’s many flaws — “The Obamacare rollout was a disaster,” he said in the debate — but has called for legislative fixes rather than repeal.

His posture is a world away from that of McAuliffe, who campaigned on a promise to expand Medicaid under the federal law and continues to beat the drum for it. In July, the governor flew to Wise to press his case, visiting a field hospital that volunteers set up annually on the county fairgrounds. People had camped out for days to see a doctor or have rotten teeth pulled.

If Warner had wanted to make a hearty plea for the uninsured, there was the perfect backdrop: a heartbreaking spectacle of profound medical want. But Warner did not tag along with McAuliffe. Instead of red meat, Warner has offered the “copper plan,” a lower-cost insurance option.

Warner’s campaign spokesman, David Turner, declined to discuss strategy but said: “The political calculus hasn’t changed for Senator Warner. He’s able to maintain his broad appeal across the political spectrum because he’s been a pragmatic, sensible centrist who tries to work with everyone.”

But Republicans say the balancing act shows that the moderate sales pitch no longer works for Warner, who pulled off a $1 billion tax increase as governor and — as Gillespie often notes — has voted with Obama 97 percent of the time as senator.

“Mark Warner faces a complex dilemma, because if he tries to run like the Mark Warner of 2001, the public voting record shows something different,” Republican strategist Chris LaCivita said. “If he tries to run a base campaign, which is just to turn out Democrats, there aren’t enough motivated Democrats right now to do that. You’re still going to need the independents. Independents aren’t thrilled right now with some of Mark Warner’s hallmark achievements.”

Gillespie quipped at the debate: “Governor Warner wouldn’t recognize Senator Warner today.”

Rural appeal

Warner pollster Geoffrey Garin said the senator has nothing to worry about, even in parts of Virginia that have largely turned on Democrats. Indeed, the incumbent logged double-digit leads in several recent polls.

“Voters there in rural Virginia feel a very strong sense of connection with Senator Warner,” Garin said. “Gillespie’s betting that politics is only about ideology. But politics in southwest Virginia is deeply personal.”

Warner started establishing those bonds before his race for governor, as an entrepreneur who invested in those economically depressed regions. Then came the rural strategy hatched by Jarding, the 2001 campaign manager, and strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders. They had Warner try his hand at turkey shooting, splash his name on a NASCAR truck and set his campaign jingle to a bluegrass toe-tapper.

“He was clear he wasn’t from the culture but he liked it, and he got right in the middle of it and had fun,” Saunders said. “When somebody shows love down here, it’s returned with love.”

Warner schlepped to the woods of rural southeastern Virginia last spring for the Shad Planking, an annual gathering where politicos chew the fat — and the fish, fire-cooked on wooden boards and a far cry from the fancy fare of Williams-Sonoma. For decades, the event was a must for statewide candidates. Kaine broke with tradition and skipped it in 2012. McAuliffe was a no-show last year, a decision Saunders called a snub to rural voters.

The state party tapped Saunders in June to represent Warner outside the Roanoke convention hall where Gillespie was being nominated, voicing in his backwoods twang a populist message against the former lobbyist.

Yet Warner’s one-time ambassador to “Bubba,” as Saunders affectionately calls rural voters, is not on the campaign payroll this time. Saunders said that is a sign of Warner’s security with the rural vote, not of a decision to cede it.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think he needs me,” Saunders said. “I think he is already branded, and I think once you’re already branded, it’s hard to wash that off.”