If it were a movie it could be called "A Southern Star is Born." The most significant thing to happen following Tuesday's elections was the sudden emergence of what many excited Democrats are calling their new 2008 presidential frontrunner, a guy who just happens to be leaving office, not running for it. Departing Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, with an astounding 75% approval rating, ushered fellow Democrat Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine to victory, and in the process propelled himself into the national spotlight as a very credible threat to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the heretofore early favorite.
So just who is Mark Warner? If you're from Virginia, he's your wildly popular governor, elected just three years ago and already, under the state's constitutional term-limits, just a year away from vacating office. But to the rest of the country, he's a relative no-name with little national juice. That is until Tuesday. Now he's the newly anointed Golden Child; the great Democratic hope; the one to watch. But at the same time, to many on the left, he appears as "Republican light" given his conservative positions on the death penalty, gun control, immigration, the economy and abortion.
To his credit, the 51-year-old multimillionaire venture capitalist graduate of Harvard Law School has an impressive fiscal track record as Virginia's governor. Since his election in 2001, state revenue has increased significantly from $19 billion in FY99 to nearly $30 billion in FY05. Warner has also successfully crossed the aisle to work with moderate Republican state legislators to reform the tax code, lowering food and income taxes, and increasing the sales and cigarette taxes in 2004. He's also been lauded for progressive positions on health care and education.
Virginia is a red state which Bush carried in 2004 with 54% of the vote, yet Warner was able to grab the governor's mansion by winning over solidly Republican rural voters. He did so by sponsoring a NASCAR team, supporting gun owners and hunters, by supporting certain restrictions on abortion such as parental notification, and by using a bluegrass song as his campaign theme. He crossed over successfully, and more importantly, as a genuine country boy.
"People in rural America may speak a little slower, but they can spot a phony a mile away," Warner said. "You see other candidates who say, 'Let's just do the optics.' But unless you feel as comfortable hanging out at a country fair or having a beer and eatin' some barbecue as you do at your high-end, high-tech reception, people are going to see through that."
Regarding his chances in '08, as Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote this Summer, Warner has terrific selling points: he's a governor; he has money and access to more; he has a strong, loyal base; he's a Southerner; he has a worthy cross-over message; and he has time to craft all this into a winning campaign strategy.
And he's not Hillary Clinton, yet he feels a little like Bill, which Democrats love. Sure, prior to Tuesday, and likely still, national polls show Sen. Clinton soundly ahead of the pack. In fact, in a Marist poll just 2 weeks ago Warner was pulling just 1% to Hillary's 41%. But what Democrats will tell you privately is that they fear she's little more than a polarizing North Eastern lefty with as much of a chance of appealing to Southerners and moderate Republicans as Tom DeLay would to Manhattan liberals. And, many Democrats tell me while she might very well sprint through the primary primary, it's unlikely she could win the general election.
If Warner is to mount a serious bid for the White House he'll have to overcome the big challenge of being just a one-term governor. Some believe that will translate to a run for Sen. George Allen's GOP seat in next year's midterms. Recent polls show he would handily beat Allen, yet a head-to-head battle would likely force Warner to emphasize his more liberal pedigree in order to draw sharp contrasts with his Republican opponent. But that could throw a wrench into his presidential aspirations as a moderate challenger to Clinton.
The hullabaloo over Warner aside, we still prefer to see Al Gore return to the national political scene and seek the presidency. Until proven otherwise, he appears to have the best shot at winning...again.