President Warner? Kaine victory adds to his clout

Governor Mark Warner tried to make the case that experience with domestic policy can translate into expertise in foreign policy and national security when he met with Democrats around the country in a prelude to a possible run for president in 2008. By doing so, Warner addressed what may be the most troublesome gap on a résumé similar to those of the two successful Democratic candidates for president since 1960: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine's successful run to succeed Warner last week added huge credibility to Warner's argument.

Like Clinton and Carter, Warner is a governor of a Southern state with a track record of appealing to rural, lower-income white voters. In this respect, Warner conforms to the new political strategy that Democrats have adopted for 2008: appeal to rural voters.

Warner's gubernatorial victory in 2001 is remarkable because of the inroads he made into the Republican bastion of southern rural Virginia. He won 51.4 percent of Virginia's rural vote, according to Steve Jarding, an adviser to Warner at the time.

"The first thing he figured out is that if you want somebody's vote you can't write them off," Jarding said. "You can't do what [Senator] John Kerry [D-Massachusetts] did."

Warner, who's originally from Connecticut, used a number of gimmicks– sponsoring a NASCAR racer and adopting a bluegrass campaign jingle– but the real secret to his success was perseverance. During his campaign, Warner traveled to southwestern Virginia more than 40 times, pledging to bring the economic benefits of high technology to those far-flung areas.

In the past three decades, gubernatorial candidates in the mold of Carter and Clinton were appealing at least in part for their executive experience outside the Beltway, but those qualities may be less compelling in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Most governors with presidential ambitions have to fight perceptions that they lack experience with national security and foreign policy, and Warner is no different.

"National security is not just foreign affairs; it's also homeland security," he said in a recent interview. "I would argue that governors are front and center in any debate about homeland security."

Warner said his administration was tested during a security crisis when two snipers, John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo, terrorized Northern Virginia for weeks while news stations across the country carried the story.

Governors, Warner said, have to "live [homeland security] and implement it, as opposed to some folks in Congress who help drive the policy but don't have to implement it." Warner is also attempting to position himself as a leader on national-security issues, though his role as governor has called for some creative couching of issues once deemed strictly domestic.

"Education has moved from an economic imperative to a national-security imperative," he said. Warner argued that a well-educated work force is the key to achieving national energy independence and keeping the military armed with cutting-edge weapons. The contention is helpful to Warner because, while his national-security credentials may be in doubt, his record on education is solid. He has implemented a host of what advisers call low-cost-yet-effective policies to improve education in Virginia.

To further bolster his image on national security, Warner gave a high-profile speech in the summer at the National Press Club on the future of the National Guard, noting that Virginia is home to more military personnel per capita than any other state.

Warner is relying on private tutorials and expert briefings to learn more about national security and foreign policy. Former Secretary of the U.S. Army and former Virginia Representative Jack Marsh (D) is among a handful of experts who have briefed him on national-security issues.

But Warner's real stumping staples are domestic issues: fiscal responsibility and education. His greatest accomplishment as a public servant is turning around the finances of a state that was on the verge of losing its AAA credit rating when he took office, a downgrade that would have cost the state in higher interest rates on bonds it issued.

Warner said that when he entered office he was told the state's budget shortfall was only $700 million when it was actually $3.8 billion and soon grew to nearly $6 billion. Warner slashed the budgets of state agencies, and in 2004 passed a tax-reform bill that included a controversial sales-tax increase. The reforms put the state back on the road to fiscal health, and Governing magazine rated Virginia the best-managed state in the country, a fact that Warner and his advisers tout frequently.

Warner's passage of the tax-reform package is all the more notable because he had to maneuver it through the political mine fields of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

"He had the emptiest record of any Virginia governor in modern history in his first two years," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The Legislature defeated almost everything. What's significant is that it didn't break him."

Bill Leighty, Warner's chief of staff, said one of his boss's strengths is that he follows Winston Churchill's maxim "Never give up." It also helps that Warner has cultivated relationships with Republicans in the Legislature and often plays basketball with several of them.

Warner is also not waiting around to tap a political team; he hired former Al Gore political aide Monica Dixon to help run his leadership political action committee, Forward Together.

One source familiar with Warner's political operation said that Dixon's role is to prepare Warner for a possible race by developing a pre-campaign structure and bringing him up to speed on national and international issues.

Dixon is not the only sign fellow Democrats are beginning to take a potential Warner candidacy seriously. Representative Rick Boucher said that many Democrats are urging him to run in 2008.

"He has gotten encouragement from across the country, from Democrats across the spectrum of our party's philosophy and many financial backers who see him as the most electable of the candidates who have been mentioned to date," Boucher said.

This story first appeared in The Hill, a Washington D.C. weekly newspaper that covers Congress and other political topics.