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Could Allen’s Seat Be in Mark Warner’s Sights?

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) — embroiled in the state’s high-profile tax debate this spring, mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick and about to take the reins of the National Governors Association — appears to need little if anything else added to his bountiful political plate these days.

Still, it is virtually impossible to have a discussion about the Old Dominion’s 2006 Senate race, when first-term Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) faces re-election, without mentioning Warner’s name.

In fact, his is the only name being floated by Democrats who see the highly popular governor as their sole shot at competing against Allen, current chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a rising national star in his own right.

At the same time, party strategists agree that a future Senate bid is one of many options for the 49-year-old millionaire cell phone entrepreneur whose political career will likely be considered far from over in January 2006, when his current term ends.

With the state’s budget fiasco behind him — and the news last week that Virginia’s AAA bond rating is no longer in jeopardy — Warner now appears to be focused on building his national profile as his name continues to dangle on the shorter list of potential vice presidential running mates for presumed Democratic nominee and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

In July Warner will assume the chairmanship of the NGA, a platform that will provide him access to a national donor base and coast-to-coast exposure.

“If Mark Warner chose to run [for Senate] I think he’d be very formidable,” said Steve Jarding, who managed Warner’s 2001 gubernatorial race.

He cautioned against underestimating either Warner or Allen and, like political operatives and strategists in both parties, also noted the potential blockbuster race that could emerge.

“I think it would be a major, major race in American politics,” Jarding said. “Two real strong heavyweights. Both with national potential. Both tenacious fundraisers. Boy, this thing would set up to be one dog fight.”

Warner, the first Democrat to be elected Virginia’s governor in more than a decade, is prohibited by state law from seeking a consecutive second term.

A former state party chairman, his first foray into elected office was a failed 1996 Senate bid against Sen. John Warner (R). The Warners matchup — billed as “Mark versus John” — became a nationally watched contest and Mark Warner came within 5 points of defeating the incumbent after spending more than $10 million of his personal fortune.

Mark Warner made millions in the 1980s and 1990s in the telecommunications industry. In 2001, his net worth was estimated at $200 million.

He spent much of Monday with Kerry, who attended Virginia’s oldest Memorial Day parade in Portsmouth, near the Navy hub of Norfolk. Warner also sat behind Kerry at Saturday’s dedication of the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

While Warner has generated vice-presidential buzz, he is considered a long shot to eventually become Kerry’s running mate.

Still, he is also mentioned as a possible Cabinet appointee in a Kerry administration — no doubt a safer way for Warner to raise his profile than to gamble on a race against a popular incumbent like Allen, who is also a former governor.

Some Democrats doubt whether Warner will ultimately role the dice on a Senate bid.

“He is the logical choice and I think that for him personally that would be a fairly high-risk endeavor,” said one Democratic strategist in the state. “He’d have to knock off Allen and that’s going to be tough. And he’s got some other possibilities based on what might happen in November of this year. If Kerry gets elected and he gets some secretary level appointment, he’s set. In some ways it might be better than being a Senator.”

Still, the strategists wouldn’t discount Warner’s interest in the Senate race.

“If the Kerry thing doesn’t work out, that’s probably a logical place for him to go,” the strategist said. “He’s not going to sit on his thumbs.”

Born in Indiana and educated at Harvard Law School, Warner’s stunning success in 2001 was attributed to his ability to cobble together support from his Northern Virginia base with an impressive showing among rural social conservatives in the state’s economically depressed southwestern and southside regions.

He also defied conventional wisdom by pushing through a controversial package of tax increases through the Republican-led General Assembly during the recent legislative session — a maneuver that bolstered the state treasury but could prove to be politically unpopular in the long run.

While an open Senate race would be most ideal for Warner, the odds of having an incumbent-free shot at a seat in either 2006 or 2008 are considered slim, but still plausible.

Allen, who has presidential political ambitions and is widely viewed as a potential contender in 2008, could opt not to run for re-election. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whom Allen succeeded as head of the NRSC, has already said he will not seek re-election in 2006 and he is also seen as likely to run for president in 2008.

Jarding said several moves by Allen this spring have helped to fuel speculation, especially in the Northern Virginia business community, that he could decide to forgo a second term in the Senate.

Most notably, Jarding said, was Allen’s willingness to come out against the tax hike and the Republicans in the state Legislature who went along with the deal. Business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, backed Warner in the fight.

“It’s a state issue,” Jarding said. “He had every reason to stay out of it and he didn’t.”

Gambling on John Warner’s retirement in 2008 might be a better bet for Mark Warner, although the current governor could have his own presidential aspirations by that point, depending on the outcome of the November election.

“Warner would be the logical candidate [for Senate],” said Richmond-based Democratic political consultant Rhett Walker. “Politically it makes a tremendous amount of sense for him to roll the dice and run against Allen.”

But no matter what scenario he is presented with, no one expects Warner to fade away politically.

“Looking out, Mark Warner, in his mind I’m sure, one term as Virginia governor is not his political career,” Walker said.

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