ESSAY- Last man standing?: Techie ex-gov has lead

On a recent "Meet the Press," Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware explained why he deserves his party's nomination for president– and proved he can speak rather succinctly.

I won't presume to suggest the Senator has been reading this column, but his remarks certainly resonated with a recent thesis that the message is "competence" right now. Biden hammered that theme incessantly, suggesting the Bush administration has shown it just doesn't have it.

He said that if he'd known the administration's conduct of the war in Iraq was going to be so incompetent he'd never have voted for it. Not quite a John Edwards "I was wrong," but more of a "my mistake was not recognizing how bad they were" mea culpa.

Now comes the book Cobra II by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and retired Marine Gen. Bernard E. Trainor. The book makes the case that the administration's top planners didn't understand their enemy, didn't know how they would fight, and didn't adapt their tactics when reports from field commanders made clear the real fighters out there were the Fedayeen irregulars, not Saddam's vaunted Republican Guard.

In short, the war was badly managed from Washington and may well have squandered a brief window of opportunity when the peace could have been won. This book will do nothing but further erode President George W. Bush's credibility as a competent commander.

So if competence is still the question in 2008, who is the answer? For the Democrats, the dark horse who appears to have the edge in that debate is former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.

His message is simple. On a swing through New Hampshire recently he repeatedly said he's proved he can win in a red state and proved he has the management skills to get something done when he's in office. That's a pretty compelling argument in a field of U.S. Senators, members of an institution the electorate judges as no more competent than the White House.

The governor had a rocky start to his administration, repeatedly getting rolled by savvy Virginia politicians and making a few very naive political moves. He learned quickly, however, and put the same skills that had made him millions in the telecom business to work in politics. He's become an obsessive networker, reaching across party divisions to charm, cajole, or simply cudgel Republicans into supporting his policies.

Warner turned a $6 billion budget deficit into a $544 million surplus and survived breaking a no-new-taxes pledge to do it. He salvaged the state's bond rating, achieved the second-lowest jobless rate in the nation, and made the single largest investment in K-12 education in state history.

In what many might dismiss as pure "wonkiness," he added 700 miles of broadband connections, linking 700,000 citizens and nearly 20,000 businesses to the information superhighway. His vision was to keep small towns from falling behind.

"In the 1880's, if the railroad didn't come through your town, the town shriveled up and went away," he says, adding that the same thing will happen to small towns bypassed by broadband Internet.

Warner wasn't about to let that happen, and now small-town mayors applaud him for creating jobs.

If you accept the idea that the race for the Democratic nomination will come down to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and "the last man standing," you have to give this long-shot Southern governor favorable odds to be that guy.

He's proved he can win an election in a red state and played a leading role in electing his successor, a Democrat who was in trouble until Warner took to the campaign trail with him. He has proved he can govern with a contentious, conservative Legislature. And, unlike Sen. Clinton, who has been rather clumsily moving to the right recently, Warner is able to slide easily to the left and still not collide with Hillary.

His artful commutation of the death penalty of a convicted killer late last year was accepted by all because he based it on science. A court clerk had destroyed DNA evidence that theoretically could have proven innocence. That move, after presiding over 11 executions, demonstrated not only a commitment to rational policy but also a deft political hand.

Warner has proved he was a competent governor. He's yet to prove he can run a competent presidential campaign, and he is sorely lacking in foreign policy experience. But so were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, two long shots who eventually went the distance.

Goddard, working for the health-insurance industry, was the mind behind the "Harry and Louise" campaign that galvanized opinion against the Clinton healthcare plan in 1994. He penned this piece for The Hill, a Washington weekly.