NEWS- Battle royale? GOP searches for Mark Warner's foe

Tom Davis (R) represents much of Northern Virginia in Virginia's 11th Congressional District.

Following Mark Warner's September 13 announcement that he's running for retiring Sen. John Warner's (R, no relation) seat in 2008, Democrats from Alexandria to Bristol have been jubilant over the former governor's chances to turn another of the Senate's seats from red to blue.

Both the state and national Democratic parties are already touting the popular Warner as their candidate, so their nomination process is expected to be little more than a formality. The same cannot be said for the GOP.

Names of several prominent Republicans have been bandied about as possible candidates for the open seat, but none have made as much noise as Representative Tom Davis (R-Fairfax County) and former Governor Jim Gilmore. Should both the moderate from Northern Virginia and the self-described "consistent conservative" from Richmond decide to seek the GOP nod, it could make for an intra-party battle royale.

Even before John Warner announced his retirement, Davis was on a tour of the Commonwealth meeting with local Republican groups. Just before an early August visit to Charlottesville, Davis told WINA's Coy Barefoot, "If [John Warner] does not run for re-election, one thing he's urged me [to do] is get around the state, be ready, be prepared." 

Since first winning his seat in 1994, Davis has become one of the more visible Republicans in the House. For volunteering to lead the effort to retain a GOP majority by chairing the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002, Davis was assigned the chairmanship of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 1998. Appointed over far more senior colleagues, he issued over 1,000 subpoenas to the Clinton administration.

 But like Senator Warner, that loyalty is tempered by an independent streak, as he also presided over high-profile hearings concerning the September 11 attacks, the Valerie Plame CIA leak case, the Abu Ghraib military prison scandal, and the government response to Hurricane Katrina.

Unlike his president, Davis has supported federal expansion of human embryonic stem cell research and opposed bills requiring hospitals to report illegal immigrants they treat and deauthorizing "critical habitats" for endangered species. 

That bit of daylight between Davis and the party line is the hole through which Gilmore would likely try to run his candidacy. 

Since ending his short-lived bid for the Republican nomination for president in July, Gilmore has had sharp words, too– but for Davis. "Certainly, Congressman Davis would like to be the senator," he told the Daily Progress in August. "We're pretty confident that the message I have and the record I have would make me the nominee."

Indeed, since attempting to roll back Virginia's car tax as governor, Gilmore has become a darling of the conservative set. During his run for the White House, Gilmore managed to garner slightly more ink than the average "also ran" for quips like "I represent the Republican wing of the Republican party," and for lumping together the three frontrunners for the nomination as "Rudy McRomney." 

Since abandoning his run because of what he called "the front-loaded nature of the primary schedule," Gilmore has launched the "Gilmore Patriots Committee" and has begun to author a blog called "Virginia Patriot." A potential Gilmore candidacy has already garnered the endorsement of such groups as the American Conservative Union and the Free Congress Foundation. 

According to UVA professor and political pundit Larry Sabato, the last thing the GOP wants is a Gilmore v. Davis showdown.

"They want to avoid a donnybrook, because the two of them would empty their treasuries and would then start out way behind a candidate like [Mark] Warner," Sabato says.

The landscape for such a battle will become clearer on October 13 when the Republican Party of Virginia decides whether to choose its nominee by a statewide primary vote or by a convention. Sabato says this decision has the potential to alter the outcome.

"It will be much easier for Tom Davis to win if it's a primary," he says. "A primary draws a small electorate, but broader than you will have at a convention, which attracts the most active party members, and they tend to be the most conservative and ideological, which would favor Jim Gilmore."

Davis has stated that he's waiting until after the November elections to reveal his plans, while Gilmore has set no specific timetable.

One man who won't make a run is former Senator George Allen. On September 12, Allen told a group of Martinsville Republicans, "I will definitively tell you that I am not interested in running for the U.S. Senate," according to the Martinsville Bulletin.

Since ending his presidential bid in July, former governor Jim Gilmore has expressed interest in running for statewide office.