Remaking Warner 

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Landmark Aviation's wood-paneled terminal at Dulles Airport is everything a traditional airport terminal gate isn't.

Its lobby scattered with comfortable, overstuffed chairs and evenly tanned beautiful people in expensive casual wear, Landmark caters to a privileged class of traveler.

Like CNN's Larry King, for example. Sour-faced, he lopes with a long gait toward the door to the tarmac. King's tan has more the look of a moments-ago chemical peel. He matches nearly perfectly with his fire-engine-red Members Only jacket. An airport worker follows, pushing two full luggage carts. King and his lady friend -- who looks like a Carly Simon body-double — do not travel light.

The same cannot be said of the next face that appears.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner bounds into the room in khakis, pressed white shirt and a yellow tie. This ex-, early presidential candidate-to-be-reckoned-with is now bounding toward the U.S. Senate, and his giant smile seems to infect a group of waiting reporters.

It's Sunday, May 4, just before 2:30 p.m. The topic of the day is plenty serious: Later this afternoon Warner plans to officially announce his intent to run for retiring U.S. Sen. John Warner's seat. But the jokes begin even before greetings are exchanged.

"If you get on the plane, you can't get off," ribs Associated Press political writer Bob Lewis, making a vague reference to Warner quitting an exploratory campaign for president in 2007 for the greater needs of his family.

"I'm getting on the plane," Warner shoots back, trademark smile in place as he starts across the lobby for the tarmac.

The turboprop 15-seater that Warner and his entourage shoehorn into this day is a heck of a lot less glamorous than Air Force One — not unlike a canoe with wings. But according to most of the armchair gossips, political watchers and professional pundits, it's also much more of a sure thing in a race likely to pit Warner against another former governor, Jim Gilmore.

Just don't start talking about sure things with Warner.

"I am obsessed with doing this the right way," he says, firm that he's "not taking anything for granted. I'd rather be in this position than the other end of the stick, but I am trying to make sure from a candidate standpoint that we leave no stone unturned."

Warner's return to politics comes at an apt time — not to mention the dAcj飼 vu of a matchup against Gilmore (the man whose fiscal mess Warner often is credited with cleaning up as governor). With the country teetering on recession and many of the same fiscal bugaboos haunting politics, the man from Northern Virginia barnstorming back onto the scene seems to provide a glimmer of bipartisan hope for fiscal conservatives.

The Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tenn., is the nearest airport that can handle Warner's plane, which is loaded with the candidate's wife and two of his three daughters, various handlers and, of course, reporters. The Washington Post's Anita Kumar and The Virginian-Pilot's Warren Fiske spend the flight poring over newspapers. AP political writer Lewis and Raising Kaine political blogger Lowell Feld start a friendly chat moments after takeoff.

It begins with thoughts on the blogosphere, moving to a discussion of Gilmore's chances against Warner, and to a play-by-play analysis of missteps in the George Allen-Jim Webb matchup, then Obama, back to blogging, and a lamentation over American newspapers' inability to staunch the loss of readers and advertisers — transitioning to a brainstorming session about how to make money on the Internet.

"Porn sites know how to do it," Feld says. Yeah, Lewis agrees.

The plane touches down.

The cafeteria of E.B Stanley Middle School in Abingdon, a small town in Southwestern Virginia where Warner announced his gubernatorial bid in 2001, is packed with about 300 party faithful and a smattering of Republicans.

Strains of a bluegrass band lilt through the open windows — Warner is a well-known fan of the genre and even campaigned with his own bluegrass theme song back in '01 — while supporters munch on barbecue, coleslaw and pickle spears.

"In this area, Warner's pretty well-liked," says Lacy Love, 79, a chatty supporter hovering near a table full of cookies and soda. He's liked Warner since his first visit to the area during the gubernatorial campaign. Love says loyalty is rewarded with loyalty in these parts: "He did come back when he become governor.

"Most of the time a Republican will win through this area," he says, while the afternoon's first politician, lanky U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher — who smelled eerily like a funeral home when he was earlier making the rounds to shake hands with the crowd — takes to the microphone.

"Before [Warner], a lot of people sort of wrote a Democrat off," says Love, as Boucher tells the crowd of his regret that Warner's run is for the Senate and not the presidency. The crowd greets Boucher's comments with enthusiasm, but he delivers them almost with a twinge of wistfulness — of an opportunity missed.

"I think he made the wise decision," says Paul Goldman, who worked alongside Warner in 1989 on L. Douglas Wilder's historic gubernatorial race. "I don't think he had much chance running against [Barack] Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton — it's a little question of reality. It just wasn't Mark Warner's year to run for president. Give him credit for sensing that early on.

"Otherwise he would have ended up as Chris Dodd or Joe Biden," continues Goldman, who also preceded Warner as chairman of the state Democratic Party. "There wasn't any room: You had three supercandidates. And [Warner] can always run for president another day."

Agreed, says Sidney Milkis, with the Miller Center of Public Affairs, a nonpartisan University of Virginia politics and public policy research center.

"If he had run for the presidency, he would have been someone who would have been looked at very closely as a vice presidential candidate," Milkis says. "I think he would have been in the top tier. I think he would have been up there with Edwards and Clinton and Obama, and I think he would have been more formidable than Biden or [New Mexico Governor Bill] Richardson."

As with the Senate race, Milkis says, as a presidential candidate Warner's strength would be his success as governor: "One of the things that's been talked about in this race is that there's no one with executive experience."

By running for the same Senate seat for which he bid unsuccessfully in 1996, Warner may be doing more than just helping secure control of the Senate for Democrats.

"I think Obama has shown he has the potential to be competitive in certain Southern states," U.Va.'s Milkis says. "And I think it will be very helpful to have a terrific Senate candidate on the ticket with him. Dare I say Democrats would be favored to win Virginia?"

Maybe, but not if Republican strategists get wise and use Obama's record on gun control to drive a wedge between the liberal senator from Chicago and the prospective senator from Virginia who counts among key supporters a group calling themselves "Sportsmen for Warner."

That Obama might ride Warner's coattails seems unlikely to Goldman.

"There's no reverse coattails," he says dismissively, though he does acknowledge Warner's importance for laying the framework for any hope Obama might have here. "The coattails is that people now see Democrats as fiscally responsible. And it doesn't hurt obviously; having Warner on the ballot does help."

Never mind that in some ways 2008 is a flashback to 1996.

"My silver medal race," Warner calls the now infamous Warner vs. Warner campaign that gave Virginians "MarkNotJohn" bumper stickers — and Mark Warner an unlikely admirer in the man he'd hoped to defeat.

In the wake of that race, the two Warners found common ground, becoming friends. Both are strong-minded independents — Mark is a well-known fiscal conservative and John well-known for his willingness to buck Republican Party leadership and take an independent stand for what he thinks is right.

Fast-forward to today. Despite Mark Warner's insistence that he's running hard, there's a certain sense of inevitability to the campaign. In some ways, Goldman suggests, Warner may find himself running a de facto incumbent's campaign. Gone is MarknotJohn, in favor of a slogan that evokes John Warner's legacy: "Virginia Independence." Or, as Goldman sees it, "JohnNowMark."

"I think Gilmore's really up against it," Goldman says. "[Warner] ran in 2001 against Gilmore's fiscal mismanagement and people made up their mind. This is an election to reconfirm what everybody already knows. Warner was clearly the better governor and people will clearly think he's the better [Senate] candidate."

Warner hammers the theme of independence from party politics throughout his campaign stop in Abingdon and the stops following. He talks of forming a "radical centrist" coalition. It has a whiff of political vagary — a wet napkin nicety meant to win both red and blue votes.

The radical center is on display Monday, May 5, at the new fire and emergency services headquarters in downtown Roanoke, where Warner again announces his bid for the Senate.

"Good morning, Democrats!" the first speaker shouts to a crowd of about 250 of Warner's faithful. The podium is set against the backdrop of a gleaming red fire truck. Today there will be no bluegrass. This is the rock 'n' roll Warner. Today there's the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up."

This is not just a crowd of Democrats, though.

David Carson is the Republican chairman of the Roanoke City School Board, and the day after Warner's visit, he'll find out if he's won re-election. For now he's campaigning next to the Democrat he says he first voted for in the '01 gubernatorial race.

"I've always considered myself a conservative before I consider myself a Republican," Carson tells the AP the day before the fire station gig. He may as well be speaking for Heywood Fralin, a longtime GOP contributor and father of Delegate Bill Fralin, R-Roanoke, who also appears at the rally alongside Warner.

Barry Draper is happy to see them come into the Warner fold. The towering 59-year-old Roanoke County resident is wearing a vintage "Sportsmen for Warner" T-shirt from 2001. He looks the part of a burly backwoods redneck, but sounds like a seasoned politico. He says the shirt's been folded neatly in a chest at home waiting for this day, ever since Warner became governor.

Gilmore, he says, will "never get out of the starting block."

Warren Campbell doesn't write Gilmore off. Once chairman of the county's Democratic Party, Campbell knows the lay of the land in this mountainous region of the state. "In Virginia, you cannot do that," he says of any Democrat assuming an easy victory. "[Warner] knows the campaign against Gilmore is going to get ugly."

Indeed, a preview of that came at this year's Shad Planking, the state's signature political season starter. Warner's speech was light and stuck to the positive. Gilmore went on the offensive, painting Warner as a tax-happy opportunist who overstated the state's financial crisis upon taking office.

"Gilmore gets up and starts attacking [Warner] right away," Campbell recounts. "That's the kind of campaign Gilmore loves."

The press releases are already flying out of Gilmore campaign headquarters, with messages that seek to recast the Warner legacy of righting a ship of state nearly capsized by Gilmore's "no car tax" chants.

"Warner created the budget deficit to justify breaking his word to the people of Virginia," reads a vitriolic statement from Gilmore issued shortly after Warner's official campaign kickoff. "Now he pats himself on the back to [sic] 'fixing' a mess he created."

This is the Gilmore that Warner has to watch for, Goldman says.

"You tend not to like to be in the [assumed winner] position [because] in politics, you're trying to knock off the people on top," he says. "Sometimes being an underdog is a good place to be."

Warner's entourage packs in tight on the plane before 10 a.m. Nerves wear thin in back, where reporters are tired of sharing the scant legroom. The AP's Lewis needs a forward-facing seat. Kumar buries herself in touching up a story she's writing on her BlackBerry. The Virginian-Pilot's Fiske is silent. Blogger Feld is not — and won't be until the plane touches down in Norfolk.

This is Navy town, Sen. John Warner's turf. And this is where Mark Warner wants to let people know he's the voice for "Virginia independence" that can take up the Warner mantle.

The battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin and its twin front turrets of 16-inch guns are a hell of a lot more impressive at his back than yesterday's fire truck. Yesterday, it was rock. Today it's an oompah band. Yesterday it was Republicans standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Democratic Warner. Today it's top military brass.

"A leader without judgment can lead a nation into invading Iraq," retired Adm. Harry Train, former commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, tells the partisan crowd. "A leader without judgment can repeal the car tax to the distress of local governments. A leader without judgment can lead you to drinking poison Kool-Aid."

Warner's Virginia independence shtick could play very well this year, U.Va.'s Milkis suggests.

"The fact that the [Virginia] Republicans don't have a John McCain-level candidate to run against Warner" may hurt, Milkis says, suggesting that McCain's credentials as a John Warner-like man-unto-himself helped McCain build the centrist base he's needed to score the presumptive GOP nomination. The same will be true of Warner seeking out Republican voters: "Look at what's happened in the last five to 10 years in Virginia, in what used to be very firmly a red state."

A Monday-afternoon stop in Richmond is clearly safe political territory for Warner — no need for battleships. For the first time on this trip, he's free to be just a Democrat. Standing alongside Gov. Tim Kaine, his successor in the executive mansion, Warner looks relaxed. His canned speech sounds more polished.

"Start Me Up" begins to wear more comfortably as his campaign theme. The smiling technicians in white lab coats behind him — his backdrop is the BioTech Park on Leigh Street near City Hall — give the impression that the candidate has passed a battery of scientific tests with flying colors.

In Charlottesville and Harrisonburg on Tuesday, May 6, it's back to picking up high-profile Republican supporters.

Bill Crutchfield is the entrepreneur-founder of an eponymously named mail-order and online electronics retail company. He's also a longtime Republican booster who donated heavily to Gilmore's successful 1993 gubernatorial bid. He declined to support Warner for the same office in 2001.

Now Crutchfield is a believer in Warner's fiscally sound, business-minded approach to governance, he says. He sees a bridge-builder. "Let's say there clearly is a culture among too many politicians who take part in 'jihad' politics," he says. "We don't need more divisiveness."

But Crutchfield says he had to think long and hard before throwing support behind his friend on the other side of the political fence. If both Warner and Obama win, it would add to the control Democrats already have over the House of Representatives.

Warner just could be the 60th Democratic senator, he says, shutting down the filibuster. "I'm opposed to single-party total rule," he says, "whether it be Republican or Democratic."

In the end he concluded that Gilmore, as an arch conservative Republican in a Democratically controlled Congress, would be a voice lost in the wilderness. But "Mark Warner could be an important factor in softening the policy positions of the liberal Democrats."

That may be a backward way of saying Warner is the radical centrist of his campaign claims. Right now, it's playing well with the party centrists on both sides, but will it play in November with the common man?

"If I were him, I wouldn't want to try to explain 'radical centrist' to voters," says one Democratic insider, who didn't want to be named. Jargon, the insider says, doesn't fly well with voters if you can't explain it in a sentence.

Warner hopes deeds will make explanations moot.

"This is something; if I can get there, you know, I want the people to hold my feet to the fire," Warner says. "It sounds trite — 'common ground.' But it's as good as I've got." S

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