Virginia squeeze: 'Mother of Presidents' with child?


Few people would have pegged Mark Warner for a run at the White House after his much-publicized 2002 failure to convince voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to support local tax increases for regional transportation projects.

Count Warner himself among the doubters.

"That was a frustrating experience," he says. "Everybody recognized there was a problem, and that this was not a perfect solution. It was a solution, but as we got closer and closer to the election, everybody found a reason to vote against it.

"The anti-tax crowd," as Warner calls his conservative critics, made the most noise. "But most of the people who were against the effort," he says, "were people who didn't trust Richmond or were environmentally concerned or didn't trust VDOT (the Virginia Department of Transportation).

"There might have been things we could have done to ameliorate that," he says.

Warner had learned his lessons by 2004– when he led a bipartisan effort to address what leaders on both sides of the aisle saw as a deteriorating fiscal situation. The coalition eked out new money for education and transportation and sparked the buzz that Warner might be the next great national Democrat.


Little 'Gipper'

 George Allen might have been a longer shot than Warner– at least from the perspective of the summer of 1993, when the then-Albemarle-based congressman trailed two-term attorney general Mary Sue Terry by a double-digit margin in the early days of their race for governor.

The Republican's upset win that November took him from the frying pan of the campaign trail to the fire– trying to work his reform agenda through a Democrat-controlled state legislature. Allen had campaigned to abolish parole, drastically change the state's welfare system, and establish an education-accountability program– years before the federal No Child Left Behind initiative.

His successes harked back to a 1980s Republican who had been forced to cut deals with a Democrat-controlled Congress.

"George Allen has often been compared over the course of his career, dating back to his term as governor, to Ronald Reagan," says Frank Atkinson, a member of Allen's cabinet from 1994 to 1996.

As with Reagan, "there were political observers who were saying at the time that the things he was trying to accomplish were never going to work," Atkinson says. "They were absurd– radical, even."

Allen proposed eliminating parole for felons. He pushed education reform that eventually become known as Standards of Learning or SOLs.

"He persevered and worked toward those goals by taking it to the people to get a mandate," Atkinson says, "and then delivered on it.

"And so now, in much the same way that Reagan's reforms are viewed positively in hindsight," so are Allen's, he adds.

"People tended to be dismissive of them, both the legislative leadership and the various commentators," he says. "But looking back on it now, those things all enjoy bipartisan support, and they're part of the established conventional wisdom."

Steve Landes, a Valley delegate and chairman of the House Republican caucus, was elected in 1995.

"We've tried to replicate that on a smaller level in the House of Delegates," says Landes, who first got to know Allen while working in the 1980s as a legislative assistant to former delegate and current state senator Emmett Hanger.

"The speaker and others on our side have said repeatedly that you can't just run for office and say, 'Here I am,'" Landes says. "You have to be willing to say what you want government to do and what your ideas are."

Another similarity between Allen, a former University of Virginia football star, and Reagan, who was known before his career in politics for his movie roles as Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and Notre Dame football star George Gipp, is their personal styles.

Allen, in a nod to the memory of "The Great Communicator," made a grand Reaganesque entrance to a fund-raiser in Staunton this summer riding a horse. "We want George! We want George!" chanted enthusiastic followers.

First elected to the Virginia House in 1983, Allen has made a tradition of beating the odds. His rise to the Governor's mansion came after a redistricting put him in the same congressional district as a long-time incumbent Republican. His ascent to the Senate over Chuck Robb in 2000 marked the end of Robb's 22 years in elected office.

"He has the kind of star quality and personality that few politicians have," says Landes. "Ronald Reagan had it. I didn't particularly like him, but Bill Clinton, for all the good and bad things, had it. And I think Mark Warner has it.

"The interesting thing about George," he adds, "is that it just seems to come naturally. With Ronald Reagan, it came naturally. It's sincere."

Later at the Staunton fundraiser, Allen– who, like Reagan, has been married twice– dismissed talk of a run at the White House.

"I'm thinking about Virginians," Allen said at the time. "My focus is on doing my job as best I can for the people of Virginia, advocating what I call common-sense Jeffersonian conservative principles, and working for the people.

"Politically, the focus is on 2006," he concluded.


Favorite role

 Allen is being touted as a frontrunner in the race for the '08 GOP nomination– even as he conducts fundraising events in New Hampshire but insists he isn't looking beyond his '06 Senate reelection bid.

In late April, a poll of political insiders by National Journal found that Allen wasn't competing just with moderate Arizona Senator John McCain; he was ahead in the admittedly unscientific poll.

"I think Allen has to be at the top of everyone's expectations right now," says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington.

"Allen has a position within the ideological spectrum of the Republican Party that serves him well in a primary," says professor Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University. "He's really appealing to the party activists within the Party. And that's good for candidates who are running in primaries."

At this early stage, both political science profs see Allen as the favorite of the Christian right, whose support of evangelical conservative George W. Bush elevated the Texas governor over McCain in their bitterly contested 2000 nomination battle.

"In many ways, the Christian conservative element of the Republican Party is sufficiently large that they have an effective veto over the eventual nominee," says Farnsworth. "They may not get their first choice, but candidates they're opposed to are not going to get through the system."

Allen's potential rivals for that important spot in the presidential-nomination pecking order are struggling right now. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, for example, is the focus of investigations into insider trading and other issues related to a blind trust– "and a lot of Republicans have expressed doubts about how effective a majority leader he's been," notes Farnsworth.

And given President Bush's recent low approval numbers, his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush– another potential nominee– "may have to sit 2008 out," Farnsworth says, adding, "Frist and Jeb Bush are two people who could have competed effectively with George Allen for Christian conservative support."

Democrats, for their part, are working– Karl Rove-like– to turn Allen's perceived political strength into a weakness. The party has used its hype machine to make an issue of Allen's close ties to Virginia televangelist Pat Robertson– in much the same way that attorney-general candidate Creigh Deeds made an issue of Republican opponent Bob McDonnell's ties to Robertson late in their 2005 state race.

"It clearly hurt Bob McDonnell in the Virginia attorney-general race," Kidd says. "McDonnell won that election by just a few hundred votes when everyone– even the polls– were showing that he would walk away with it. I think that can be attributed to that last-minute effort to tie him to Robertson.

That said, Kidd thinks Allen's ties to the Christian right "help him in the primaries," but just how much they help or hurt in the general election is questionable.

Kidd points out that while everybody knows about George Bush's strong relationship with the Christian right and that he's religious himself, publicly he keeps a distance.

Too overt an embrace of the Christian right, Kidd says, hurts candidates in the general election. Keeping them at arm's length is the key.

Atkinson doesn't think the Dems' efforts to turn Allen's ties to the Christian-right into a liability will be successful down the road.

"It will be very hard for anyone to pigeonhole Allen as belonging to any one faction of the Republican Party,"Atkinson says, because his accomplishments range from education to law enforcement to parental notification to welfare reform and government reform.

Atkinson adds that that a broad range of accomplishments across party lines precludes Allen's being painted as a one-issue candidate.



The Warner bandwagon

 While Allen is being treated as a frontrunner for his party's nomination, Warner is at best a middle-of-the-pack candidate right now.

Kidd points out that Warner's one-term governorship necessarily limits his base. "He also comes from a side of the party that doesn't serve him well," Kidd says. "He's a pragmatist, a centrist, Bill Clinton, Third Way-type Democrat." By contrast, he says, party activists want "blood-sucking ideologues."

And a blood-sucking ideologue Warner is not. His appeal, as he describes it, is to a constituency that is "hungry for results-driven policy" rather than pure ideology.

Warner says that he's noticed in California, New York, and other places where his centrist, results-oriented approach would probably not get much traction, that people want policymakers who "can actually get stuff done."

Kidd's reference to Clinton is interesting since it's widely assumed that the candidate to beat in the 2008 Democratic presidential sweepstakes is New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the wife of the former president.

Hillary Clinton, with her obvious star power, "is likely to raise a lot of money" and draw a lot of Democratic talent, Farnsworth says.

He adds that if the party does decide to abandon Hillary, there's no guarantee Democrats would turn to Warner.

As much as an influx of money might be a factor in boosting Hillary Clinton's fortunes, the availability of funds won't be a problem at all for Warner– a former Virginia Democratic Party chairman whose personal fortune is estimated at $180 million, according to Virginia Business magazine. Warner personally bankrolled his previous two statewide-campaign efforts, contributing $10 million from his personal accounts to his unsuccessful 1996 run at the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican John Warner and $4.7 million to his 2001 gubernatorial victory over GOP nominee Mark Earley.

Even with the cash and his centrist appeal, Warner might be running second or third at this point, Farnsworth says– behind '04 vice-presidential nominee John Edwards of North Carolina and '00 presidential nominee Al Gore of Tennessee.

"The biggest advantage Mark Warner has going is his political and policy triumphs as governor in Virginia," Farnsworth says, "a state that's among the redder in this country."

Farnsworth also believes that Warner's difficulty nationally is his relatively low name recognition. "Outside of Virginia, few people know the name Mark Warner," he says.

"There's no question that Warner is in the top six or seven," he adds.


Holding pattern

 This all suits Warner just fine, for the record. His focus is on finishing his term as governor and then recharging his batteries for what lies ahead.

Allen, for his part, is putting his attention squarely on his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2006.

The White House talk is "humbling," Allen concedes.

"A lot of folks will be encouraging me to run for president, and that's very nice," Allen says. "It's nice that folks say that, but I think it's important to be focused on the task at hand, and being prepared."

Allen's term in the U.S. Senate ends in January 2007. He hopes to get re-elected in 2006.