Political Tea Leaves 

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Republican candidates for the House of Delegates, beware.

There's a lean and hungry politico abroad in the land, and he has your number — not to mention more time on his hands than he's quite sure what to do with. Get ready to rumble.

Former governor and former presidential contender Mark Warner was back on the hustings last week, and I'm happy to share an impression or two. Not, mind you, that he necessarily confirmed or denied any of what I'm about to say, just that after a couple decades of watching politicians up close, you start to develop a sixth sense.

First, Warner may have had good reason for dropping out of the Democratic presidential nomination race when he did last October, but he's energetic and restless and he misses the fray — a lot. Not so much so that he'd jump back in, which some have suggested. He's too smart for that sort of about-face, especially when his stated reason was a laudable desire to spend more time with his family.

But like a prize racehorse confined to the stables, he's itching to get back on the track. And the next opportunity to go all out comes with state legislative races this fall.

Warner's public answer to whether he questions his earlier decision is a demure denial.

"There are definitely days when I miss the energy of being out on the road, and the issues are so important," he said in an interview following a mid-week give-and-take with Larry Sabato's political science class at the University of Virginia. On the other hand, he went to a square dance at his daughter's school earlier in the week, "and if I was still on the campaign trail, I might have been in Iowa or New Hampshire."

Nice sentiment, but for a man who only recently wanted to run the free world, here's betting that — much as he loves his daughters — a do-se-do is a bit tame.

When it came to the Virginia elections this fall, the bit was out of Warner's mouth. Talking to students and during an impromptu press conference, he left no doubt that he intends to invest considerable energy in boosting Democratic numbers in the GOP-led legislature. Three times, he honed in on House Republicans who fought him "tooth and nail, every step of the way" as governor, or legislators "particularly in the House" who "reflexively say no" to Gov. Tim Kaine.

With more than $1 million in his federal Forward Together political action purse and about $400,000 in his state political account, Warner promised a "potentially unprecedented" effort to elect Democrats. From a governor who left office in early 2006 with an 80 percent approval rating, and who's done nothing to diminish that popularity since, those are fighting words.

For the record, GOP leaders deny they're running scared. "No question the governor is popular," said Delegate Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a leading voice in the Republican House caucus. "To me, his popularity is a mile wide and an inch deep. His signature accomplishment was raising taxes in '04.

"Certainly in my neck of the woods, that's not going to play very well."

Whatever the dimensions of Warner's public approval, most analysis of the 2009 governor's race and the 2008 Senate race — if (make that a big "if") incumbent Sen. John Warner elects to retire — begins with the former governor. Thanks to the upset re-election defeat of former U.S. Sen. George Allen last fall, Mark Warner commands the first move in the grand political chess match to come.

Other potential candidates, including Allen or former GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore, line up based on what Warner does or doesn't do.

The 52-year-old remains tight-lipped about what that will be. "Whether that's Senate, governor, something else, I couldn't say at this point," he told the students when pressed about his next race.

Just a hunch, but listening to Warner talk, his present passion tilts toward the national arena. Yes, he called the Virginia governorship "the best job in America." But he spoke most convincingly about India and China, not Richmond and Grundy. His principal theme: We are at "a critical time in our nation's history … a moment of remarkable, transformational change," and the future belongs to leaders who will "make a bold audacious 'ask' of the American people."

I suspect he can see himself doing the asking.

Such rhetoric may fuel simmering speculation that Warner will consider a Senate bid, even if John Warner stays in place. My view? He'll be tempted, but that would be out of character — both because the Warners have formed a working friendship and because there's no real need for Mark Warner to take such a political risk.

Better to wait for a gubernatorial contest in which he would be the heavy favorite to win.

In the unlikely event that John Warner retires, however, all bets are off. Even acknowledging that a Senate run in 2008 might cost him the chance to be someone's vice-presidential choice next year, I expect — today at least — that's where Warner would wind up.

With what he calls "the passion of the recently" converted, he's deep into developing a plan to engage private business and ordinary citizens in solving the nation's energy problems. Expect an announcement soon. He talks about the need for a "national competitive strategy" in public education. And he urges "connecting the dots" between global warming, energy, job creation and national security.

Mark Warner may not know where his future lies, but his words at least point to a direction. S

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot, where this editorial first appeared. E-mail her at margaret .edds@pilotonline.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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