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Warner: No Ordinary Frosh

WISE, Va. — As he stood outside the Wise County Courthouse smoking a pipe and listening to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) deliver his stump speech a few evenings ago, one self- described Republican working for the Democrat’s Senate campaign predicted that a few years in Congress would be good for his candidate.

“He’s not a good speaker yet,” said the Republican, who would identify himself only as Wilson. “But this is 10 times better than ’96,” when Warner made a failed bid against Sen. John Warner (R), who is retiring this year. “He used to knock the podium so loud it sounded like a drum.”

Wilson went on to predict that Mark Warner would be back on the campaign trail again in less than four years — but not because he believes Warner will lose his Senate bid this year. Quite the opposite.

The volunteer said he’s sure Warner will beat former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) handily next week and that after less than one term in the Senate, Warner will be held in such high regard that his party will push him to run for president in 2012 — even if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is in his first term in the White House.

While challenging an incumbent president for his party’s nomination seems audacious, the statement is nonetheless an indication of just how high the expectations are for Warner, who will likely enter the Senate in January as one of his party’s brightest rising stars.

Indeed, for many Warner watchers, the question of making a bid for the White House is more a matter of when than if.

‘The Next Level’

After he left the governor’s mansion in 2005 at perhaps the height of his popularity, Warner seriously pondered the 2008 presidential race before backing away and setting his sights on John Warner’s seat. Since then, he’s run a nearly flawless campaign and, according to all available polling data, he’s expected to cruise to an easy victory.

Already it is clear that Warner will be no ordinary freshman Senator.

“I think he could have contended very valiantly for the Democratic [presidential] nomination if he had stayed in,” Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said as he waited to be introduced at the rally in Wise. But the excitement that Warner generated in contemplating that bid — not to mention early speculation that he would make a good vice presidential pick and the decision by party leaders to tap him to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer — will give Warner “instant credibility” on Capitol Hill, the Congressman said.

“It certainly gives him a visibility that the typical freshman would not have,” Boucher said. “I think the entire country is expecting great things in the future from Mark Warner, and so am I.”

How long does Boucher think it will be before Warner tries to go to the next level?

“Only as long as it takes for the next level to come,” he replied.

Outgoing Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) — who seriously considered seeking the GOP nomination to take on Warner before eventually deciding against the race last year — said the timing of a Mark Warner presidential bid is tricky.

“There will be a lot of eyes on Mark but it looks like the Democratic Party for the next eight years will have its eye on Barack Obama, and the lineup after that becomes a pretty long queue.”

Of course, at 53, Warner is a young man by political standards.

“If Obama falters, Mark is ready to move up the ladder right away and he will be more than ready for prime time” after four years of seasoning in the Senate, Davis said.

But Warner is having none of the talk. As he had a drink after the rally at an Applebee’s just outside Wise and took pictures with a few voters who recognized him, Warner wouldn’t bite on questions about what the next step beyond the Senate would be.

“I just want to be a regular freshman Senator,” Warner said. “The recent history shows the Senate is an institution that respects those that respect it and respects its Members and traditions. … I think I’ve got a lot to learn.”

Great Expectations

The expectations of Warner come from various places. In political circles, Warner’s four years as Virginia’s chief executive and his term as chairman of the National Governors Association are probably what he’s most known for.

But with a national economic crisis that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, Warner often takes time on the campaign trail to draw on his experience as a co-founder of the company that eventually became Nextel. Through that company and his technology venture capital investments, Warner has accumulated a personal fortune valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars — an asset that has contributed to making his Senate campaign a political juggernaut.

At a packed town hall event last week at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, Warner appeared onstage with friend and supporter Eric Schmidt, the chief executive officer of Google. Schmidt praised Warner for being the first politician to visit the Google offices, and both men talked about how the development of new technology can help fix the financial crisis.

Afterward, Schmidt and Warner held a brief press gaggle. As he watched Warner work the gathered media, David Lowe, the president of the Alumni Association at nearby Virginia Tech, said that if Warner does get elected on Nov. 4, “he would be viewed as more than a freshman because he brings this business background into politics.”

That business perspective will serve Warner well, especially when combined with the tendency Warner showed as governor to seek the middle ground over blind partisanship, Lowe said.

“In light of the tone at the national level, he has proven to bring people together of different perspectives for the common good,” he said.

On the campaign trail, Warner often talks about his desire to form a group of “bipartisan radical centrists” on Capitol Hill who can help break through some of the partisan deadlocks that have come to define Congress in recent years.

“Every year, everybody says it’s an important election. But this really is,” Warner said. “In every way it feels different, and when I’m out talking to folks in the Wal-Mart parking lot, there’s a frustration with the over-partisanship and team sports approach” of national politics.

The way to fix that is to build relationships with individuals on both sides of the aisle, he said.

As governor, “we had to build coalitions. … Twenty percent of the Senate will probably be new since 2006 and I think there’s an enormous desire for things to get done and I’ve got to believe there’s the ability to forge these coalitions.”

But one Virginia Republican consultant said this week that although Warner does seem likely to win the Senate race, the Democrat isn’t offering anything more than lip service on promises of avoiding the typical partisanship.

“Mark Warner said when he ran for governor, ‘I’m not going to raise taxes.’ And then he got in and did it. So the question is what promises did Mark Warner make during the Senate campaign that he’s looking to break as soon as he gets in?” the consultant said.

The Republican operative speculated that Warner will be so focused on building up his chits with Democratic leaders for his future plans that he may cave to any partisan request that is asked of him.

“If he does it he’ll do it in the first two years hoping that people will forget about it,” the consultant said. “The first two years will be telling for Mark Warner in terms of how far left he really is gong to be.”

A Lot to Learn

Regardless of the time frame Warner may be on for a presidential run, he will have a few things to prove during his time in the Senate.

One major task will be to build his foreign policy credentials, the main area in which he was lacking when he was contemplating a presidential bid this cycle.

Davis, a well-known moderate in Virginia who occasionally clashed with the right wing of his own party, said Warner will probably also have some difficulty balancing the needs of a conservative state with a Democratic Party “that from time to time veers to the left.”

Warner would also have to prove that he can overcome the challenges of going from being a chief executive who could often make things happen on his own to being just one vote within the legislative branch. That transition was not a happy one for one of Warner’s predecessors, former Virginia Gov. and Sen. George Allen (R).

“I’m sure there will be times when I’m used to a different pace, but it’s not like I didn’t know that starting the process,” Warner said. “There’s a lot I’ve got to learn both in terms of the legislative process and in terms of the norms of the Senate.”

Warner said he begins the process with great relationships with party leaders such as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who courted Warner heavily, and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), whom Warner once worked for as a staffer.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking with John Warner, who I have enormous respect for, and if I get elected he would be somebody I would look to for counsel,” he added. “He’s about as good a master of the institution as anybody.”

But Warner also joked that in some ways a Senate job — and being one of 100 — offers some nice benefits over being a governor.

“There’s a little blame sharing” in the Senate, he said. “I probably won’t be as protested against as I was when I shut down the DMV one day a week” to help balance the Commonwealth’s budget. “I was the guy getting the darts thrown at me.”

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