Is Mark Warner the Next Bill Clinton?
He made a fortune in wireless phones, but he’s been a political animal from the start. As he leaves the Virginia governor’s office he’s positioned to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. Is Mark Warner another Bill Clinton—and the next Presid
It's the first year of President Bush's second term and far too early to be thinking about 2008. So Virginia governor Mark R. Warner is not in New Hampshire to run for president. No, he's here for a policy discussion on education reform. That doesn't stop the press trailing him from peppering him at every turn: Will you run?
It's an almost comical dance. Warner—and the other candidates making the trek to New Hampshire—aren't "running" for president. They're here as part of a "conversation" about the future of the country and the Democratic Party. They dodge and weave and laugh every time someone asks if they're running for president—but the fact that they hold their "conversations" in New Hampshire, typically the first state to hold a presidential primary, means they're testing the waters.
Warner doesn't need the job. He made a killing in the dot-com years; he has enough money to retire to his farm outside Fredericksburg where he could make wine and raise his three daughters.
But his entire career has been focused on making a mark. He has succeeded against long odds in business and politics. He collects friends the way he collected coins as a child. Now, as a successful Southern governor, this is all about making more friends—from factory workers in southside Virginia to the high-tech entrepreneurs he dines with at Georgetown's Citronelle restaurant—as he embarks on his biggest challenge yet.
Mark Robert Warner was born December 15, 1954, in Indianapolis, where his father, Robert, had a milk run and worked as a safety evaluator for Aetna Life & Casualty while his mother, Marjorie, raised Mark and his sister, Lisa, four years younger. They had, Warner says, a typical 1950s Ozzie & Harriet childhood. After a brief move to Peoria, Illinois, the family landed in Vernon, Connecticut, when Mark was in eighth grade.
As a child, besides collecting coins, he was a Boy Scout, played the strategy board game Risk, and held lots of part-time jobs. He loved history, particularly the Civil War. He was an avid athlete, playing baseball, football, and his favorite, basketball. Although tall, he says, he was always a little uncoordinated. He spent one summer of high school as an exchange student in Buenos Aires, where he learned Spanish.
His father retained the bearing of the Marine he was in World War II; his mother, a great bridge player, was warm and gregarious. His parents leaned Republican but weren't politically involved; they were active in the PTA and Boy Scouts and helped coach the sports teams Mark played on.
The future governor's political inspiration came from an aunt who was a local ward leader in Indianapolis and from his eighth-grade social-studies teacher during the turbulent year of 1968. The teacher, Jim Tyler, challenged Warner to think about the world and appealed to his youthful desire to change things for the better. Of that trying year, which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the Chicago Democratic-convention riots, Warner says, "I was old enough to be touched by idealism but not old enough to be made cynical."
Warner's first elected office was the senior-class presidency at Connecticut's Rockville High School, motto: Nihil Nisi Optimum—"Nothing but the Best." After graduation he came to George Washington University to be at the center of the political world. Wanting to know more about politics, he had applied only to schools in the District.
That decision determined his future. Once here, he never left. Even his decadelong stint in business was inspired by a desire to be financially secure before running for office. He is at heart a political animal.
When Warner arrived at GW, he threw himself into politics, toiling away on Capitol Hill—working for Connecticut's Abe Ribicoff, Ella Grasso, and later Chris Dodd. Most mornings he biked to the Capitol by 7 AM, often wearing a green polyester suit and one his few ties, to open mail for Ribicoff.
At GW he gained a reputation that would stay with him: He was everybody's friend. He knew almost everyone, was always instigating basketball games and connecting his friends with new friends. To have crossed paths with Warner at any stage is to be his friend for life. "He was really good at social organizing," says freshman roommate Keith Frederick, now a pollster in Alexandria.
After graduating as class valedictorian—the first in his family to get a college degree—Warner headed to Harvard Law School. In the ivy-decked setting, Warner excelled—more outside the classroom than in. He brought together friends, organized study groups, and coached the school's first women's intramural basketball team after the group approached him. "He took it in the right degree of seriousness—he taught us some skills, held practices, and coached during the games," team captain Helen Blohm says. "He would get really mad when guys played ridiculously tough with us."
Classmates and school administrators recall that Harvard Law's class of 1980 was more cohesive than most. "In part that was really Mark's influence," Blohm says. "He would often be the one planning the party, getting the group together, or doing social things that made us seem more connected to each other." Says classmate Howard Gutman, a partner at Williams & Connolly and a friend and adviser to Warner: "He wasn't part of a faction. He overlapped everyone."
While it seemed clear that Warner would have a bright future, it was also probable that it would not be in lawyering. He was, he says, the only member of his class not to receive a job offer from either of the firms where he worked during the summers. "Government was never far from his mind," Gutman says.
Warner turned down the one law-firm offer he received—from a man he knew in Connecticut politics—and took a job raising money for the Democratic Party at an annual salary of $18,000. He arrived at the DNC in time to see Jimmy Carter lose to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
His two years at the DNC took him deep into the game of politics and showed him the inner workings of campaigns. He was haunted by a congressional candidate in Connecticut who ended his race $300,000 in debt, a burden that threatened to cost the man his house. Warner promised himself that he wouldn't enter politics until he could afford to lose.
So Warner set out to make money. He poured his life's savings into his first business venture, improving the efficiency of oil-burning furnaces using a new technology. The business and Warner's $5,000 sank in six weeks. His second effort—an attempt to get into shopping-mall development—lasted a full six months. He says these early failures taught him to ask harder questions.
With student loans coming due, Warner was in trouble. Friends relate stories, some perhaps apocryphal, of his hopping from a friend's couch to a friend's floors, broke and near broke month to month and driving a battered green 1963 Buick.
His break—the only break he'd need—came because his second failed venture had taken him to Atlanta, where he crossed paths with Tom McMillen—a star University of Maryland basketball player, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Bullets player, and future Maryland congressman—who told Warner about a new idea involving phones that could be put in people's cars.
With McMillen's help, Warner figured out that the government was basically giving away big swaths of the radio spectrum for cellular licenses—which were about to become critical to the operation of the wireless-phone industry. "These were the days that cellular was a biological term," says McMillen, who credits Warner with recognizing the opportunity. "It was like taking a dog to water, but the dog still had to be smart enough to drink."
Lacking the technical knowledge to use the spectrum and the financial resources to buy them, Warner figured out how to assemble teams, apply for a spectrum license, and leverage that license to get more. In a single meeting he persuaded Connecticut businessman David Chase to provide $1 million in startup money for the venture. That deal worked, and Warner made enough to strike out on his own, creating teams and sealing deals around the country—each time taking a piece of the company for himself. In 1987 Warner helped business associate Morgan O'Brien found a company called Fleet Call, which grew into Nextel. "He was very useful in those days as we blundered our way around," O'Brien recalls.
More than the money, Warner liked the success—it appealed to his competitive instincts. "Mark likes the game," McMillen says.
The wireless-phone experience is now a punch line in Warner's stump speech: "My friends said, 'Mark, you're crazy! You've failed twice in business. Why don't you go and practice law? Nobody's going to want a telephone in their car.' " Pause. "They're still lawyers… ." He trails off as the crowd laughs.
Left unsaid is that the phone venture made Warner more than comfortable. Going into the 2001 campaign, he listed his wealth as near $200 million.
Warner met Lisa Collis at a keg party in 1984, when she was working at the World Bank following graduate work in public health. Barely five feet tall, she is in many ways a yin to Warner's yang. Nearly every description of Collis involves the word "understated"; "quiet" is also popular. Words like that are never used to describe Warner.
The daughter of a Navy pilot who moved his family seven times before settling in Falls Church, Collis attended the University of Virginia and thought about a career in medicine until she encountered organic chemistry. Public health drew her after an attempt to join the Peace Corps fell through.
After they talked briefly at the party, Warner asked her out. Her first impression, she says, was that he was a little bit nerdy, but that was "endearing." They dated on and off for five years, drawn by mutual loves of history, travel, and a certain joie de vivre. Things gradually turned serious. After discussing the prospect for months, he proposed one morning. The wedding, in classic Warner form, featured enough of his friends to run a two-court basketball tournament as well as golf.
The Washington Post called them the "prototypical yuppie couple" at the time of their marriage in 1989. Already wealthy, Warner and Collis set off for a honeymoon exploring Egypt and Greece, but a mysterious sickness felled him there, leaving his bride to eat dinners alone in cafes and a grouchy Warner promising he'd feel better in the morning.
Once home, an increasingly ill Warner was told by doctors that his appendix had burst, and he spent two touch-and-go months in the hospital. The near-death experience might have occasioned some sort of life epiphany for someone else, but not for Warner. Just after nearly dying, he signed on to be the coordinator of Virginia lieutenant governor Doug Wilder's gubernatorial bid.
Warner was the best kind of campaign staffer: a savvy, hard-working adviser who not only worked without pay but kicked in $60,000 of his own money. He poured long hours into the race, mostly at the three-story Victorian house in Richmond where the campaign was headquartered.
Wilder wound up winning with the narrowest margin in Virginia history, becoming the nation's first elected African-American governor. Warner managed the transition while Collis was pregnant with their first daughter. He missed two of the couple's first four childbirth classes because of the job.
Wilder appointed Warner chair of the state party, a post in which Warner learned even more about the state. But he had designs on something larger. In 1991 he encouraged friends in the General Assembly to carve out a friendly congressional district—one stretching from Northern Virginia down to his farm outside Fredericksburg—and contemplated challenging Congressman Jim Moran. He also helped out on Wilder's 1992 presidential bid, getting a first taste of the New Hampshire/Iowa campaign trail.
As 1996 neared, Warner settled on his next challenge: to run for elective office and take on the state's powerful senior senator, John Warner.
Mark Warner wasn't well suited for the Senate race. He later realized that his nature isn't to run against an incumbent. His technology-driven vision didn't have anything to do with the distinguished senator. He also hated personal attacks, often rejecting campaign ads as too harsh. "He always felt that however he ran his race, his family still had to live there and he would still be there," says Anita Rimler, who served as his finance director and later campaign manager.
The GOP pulled fewer punches. Senator Warner called his challenger a "Connecticut Yankee," and then-governor George Allen, asked if the younger Warner was qualified, deadpanned, "He's legally qualified. He's old enough, and he's a citizen."
The two-Warner race, Mark Warner says, "confused the hell out of everyone in Virginia." Each camp struggled to keep its message and candidate straight. Eventually Mark Warner's campaign settled on bumper stickers and signs reading MARK NOT JOHN. The slogan didn't entirely clear up the confusion. While Mark was campaigning in Danville, along the North Carolina border, a resident drove up, rolled down his window, looked at the slogan, and asked, "Excuse me, sir, is that a biblical reference?"
It was, at the time, an expensive race, propelled by nearly $10 million of the tech entrepreneur's own money. Despite it, Mark Warner lost—or, as he likes to say, "I got the silver medal." Nevertheless, he had performed well, holding the incumbent senator to his narrowest reelection margin, and he now possessed that valuable political commodity known as "name recognition."
The race was a learning experience: He realized that the Senate wasn't his style. He was a manager, not a legislator. "He always came across as someone who would make a better governor than a senator," says John Hishta, who managed John Warner's campaign.
The race also taught Warner about his adopted home. "That's when he went around the state, saw the great diversity, and saw that some areas needed more assistance than others," says Rimler. "That's where he got his emphasis on southside and southwest Virginia. That's when he made his decision to try to equalize out the opportunities for each area of the commonwealth."
Warner had to bide his time before another run. "One of the biggest misconceptions of Warner is that he's a businessman who fell into politics. He's always wanted to do this," says Shannon Henry, a technology reporter who covered Warner for the Washington Post. Luckily for him, his downtime came just as the world was catching Internet fever.
The Internet era in the late 1990s was a period when anyone with ".com" at the end of a name could be worth millions overnight. Warner, busy running the Alexandria-based Columbia Capital, a venture-capital firm he helped found in 1989, was already a technology visionary and well connected among the industry's power players. He was part of Capitol Investors, a group that gathered once a month at area restaurants to discuss the tech boom and possible investments. The dinners, immortalized in Shannon Henry's 2002 book The Dinner Club: How the Masters of the Internet Universe Rode the Rise and Fall of the Greatest Boom in History, were half fraternity party and half venture-capital powwow, drawing together such heavyweights as Warner, MicroStrategy's Michael Saylor, Friedman Billings Ramsey's Russ Ramsey, and AOL's Ted Leonsis and Jim Kimsey. During one club social at Warner's Alexandria home, AOL's Steve Case jumped up and down on Warner's bed.
Back in the private sector, Warner used some of his money to found four venture-capital firms around Virginia to create jobs in regions hit by the collapsing tobacco and textile industries. He set up programs to help students learn computer skills and a Web site to help senior citizens navigate healthcare choices.
Politics was never far from his mind, and having learned what he did during the Senate campaign, he set his eyes on the governor's mansion. After seeing Virginia's Democratic Party decimated by the loss of Lieutenant Governor Don Beyer's 1997 gubernatorial bid and the election of Republican George Allen as senator in 2000, Warner faced a 2001 gubernatorial race representing a party that did not hold a statewide elected office.
He approached the campaign methodically. He lined up a campaign manager, Steve Jarding—whom he had tried to hire to run his Senate bid—and went around the state enlisting the support of key Democrats. "While he was the obvious choice for Democrats, he wanted to be sure that he was the obvious choice," says Geoff Garin, his longtime pollster.
He ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for the $124,855-a-year job, then faced Republican attorney general Mark Earley, a 14-year veteran of state government, in the general election.
It was another expensive campaign, with Warner outspending Earley 2 to 1 by adding $4.6 million of his own money to donations from 10,000 individuals. The Republican Party was divided and struggling as a result of fiscal problems that roiled the administration of outgoing governor Jim Gilmore.
On the stump, Warner often used his business persona, talking about how the campaign was the toughest job application of his life. "He was clearly smart," Jarding recalls. "While he wasn't a career politician, he really took the time to think through politics."
Warner steered clear of topics like abortion and gun control and focused on voters' pocketbooks. In the end, what made the difference was his embrace of the beaten-down rural parts of Virginia. His link to this rural constituency was through a colorful redneck named Mudcat.
Mudcat, whose real name is Dave Saunders, was about as far from a Beltway insider as one could get. A 52-year-old lifelong Virginian, he'd visited Washington fewer than five times and was suspicious of working for someone from Northern Virginia. But Mudcat and Warner hit it off. "What was beautiful about Warner was we didn't need to convince him he needed to win rural Virginia," Saunders says.
One of the signature emblems of the campaign came to Mudcat, an avid bluegrass fan, in the shower, where he started to pen a song about Warner. Based on the Dillards song "Dooley," it included the lyrics "Mark Warner is a good ol' boy/From up in NoVa-ville/He understands our people/The folks up in the hills." Played at rallies, it became the campaign's theme song, signifying Warner's attempt to reach out. "He's not part of our culture, but he's sympathetic to our culture," Mudcat explains, "and that's very powerful. He's got a great way of communicating to people out here that he cares about them."
The campaign also sponsored a NASCAR truck and worked hard to build a broad Sportsmen for Warner network—political code for hunters. Warner sought the NRA's endorsement, promising that he'd enforce existing gun restrictions but wouldn't support new ones. More than that, Warner pounded the pavement. He visited, revisited, and visited again the rural parts of the state. "Showing up is half the battle, and there are a lot of places where Democrats have simply stopped showing up," says Garin.
The key components of the campaign strategy were in place by September 10, and polls showed Warner with a relatively comfortable lead. The next morning, staffers were hard at work at campaign headquarters, an old warehouse in Alexandria, when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon a few miles away. From the roof, staffers watched smoke rise from the crippled building; inside, the booms of fighter jets scrambling overhead knocked items from office shelves.
As most political activity screeched to a halt, Warner spent time talking with Jarding. The next day he told assembled staffers that he wanted them to rally behind President Bush and the nation. Campaign ads came off the air. More than a week passed before any semblance of a campaign resumed. Warner "knew he was running to move the state forward," Jarding says, "and so it became very businesslike and methodical—albeit with the appropriate respect and sadness."
Warner's lead never faltered. The campaign debate shifted momentarily to homeland security, but the economic consequences of September 11—especially the lengthy closure of National Airport—brought it back to pocketbook issues and the state's finances.
On November 6, 2001, Mark Warner was elected the 69th governor of Virginia, winning 52 percent of the vote. From the start, the clock was ticking—Virginia restricts its governors to a single four-year term—and Warner felt pressure to perform. "I do believe a governor in four years with a bold agenda can accomplish a great deal," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I think, in the context of a CEO at a major company, shareholders of the company would expect results in less than four years."
Just weeks after the election, Warner faced his first test: The state's deficit was larger than anticipated, soaring from a projected $700 million to $3.8 billion. He jokes that his first reaction was to ask if it was too late for a recount, but the situation was no laughing matter. It appeared that drastic cuts would be needed.
During his first year, Warner suffered another setback: Two regional referenda to raise taxes to boost transportation spending were rejected by voters. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, the state's premiere political analyst, called the dual defeats a "terrible blow." "It looked like an empty governorship," Sabato recalls, one that would accomplish little.
Friends and family say that first year was tough on Warner. It chastened him. He struggled nightly with the budget shortfall and his weakened political outlook. The assembly, as one observer put it, wouldn't have passed a Mother's Day resolution for Warner.
Eventually, thanks to long hours, smart staff hires—especially chief of staff Bill Leighty—and an improving economy, things began to fall into place. Warner set out to build a bipartisan coalition to tackle the budget issues, to follow through on his promises of jobs and technology to rural Virginia, and to reform state government—not cut it for the sake of cutting it but to make it smarter and more efficient. "It's not about big government versus small government; it's about smart government," Warner explains.
To win over business leaders and legislators, Warner became, in the words of one reporter, the "PowerPoint governor," crusading across the state with charts, graphs, and presentations about the state's policies and the need for more funding. "He was very energetic," Sabato says. "He went out and sold it."
The result was a budget that included tax hikes and reforms and closed the deficit without severe cuts in programs. As the economy turned around, the state went from a deficit to a healthy surplus—and Warner was able to pursue other priorities. Many of his spending increases were carrots and sticks: Increased funding came with increased demands for oversight and efficiency.
Warner trimmed and changed state government to take advantage of the global economy, evolving technology, and standard business practices. Last February, Governing magazine named Virginia as one of two "best managed" states in the country.
Warner also helped lead Virginia into the 21st century with the installation of more than 700 miles of broadband, connecting nearly 700,000 citizens and more than 19,000 businesses by Internet. His refrain as he traveled the state was "If we can outsource to Bangalore, we should be able to insource to Carroll County"—or whatever county he happened to be in at the time. The jobs, often high-tech, that he brought to the southwestern parts of the state made him a hero to residents long accustomed to plant closings. The double-digit unemployment that had plagued the region went down in 12 of 13 of the most distressed counties, and the state's jobless rate became the nation's second lowest.
One of his biggest symbolic successes for rural Virginia came when he pressured the University of Virginia into blocking the expansion of the ACC athletic conference if it didn't include Virginia Tech, located in rural Blacksburg. "Mark Warner—if he did nothing else, he will forever be known as the Wizard of Oz," says Mudcat Saunders of the deal that put Virginia Tech into the high-powered ACC.
Education was a pet issue for Warner, one he pushed nationally as chair of the National Governors' Association. His instate education reforms—which included the largest investment in K-12 education in Virginia's history and the second-largest increase in college and university funding in the nation (after years of cuts)—allowed greater accountability and, he claims, helped lead to the nation's highest SAT score increase in math.
Warner faced other challenges, including the state's failing mental-health system and the sniper attacks of fall 2002, and after the defeat on the transportation referenda he never again seriously addressed that issue, leaving it to incoming governor Tim Kaine. But aides, legislators, and observers agree that he learned from his mistakes: The Warner who is leaving office is a more mature, more thoughtful, and more effective leader than the sometimes cocky dot-commer who won election in 2001. •
In person, the lanky Warner seems a little larger than life. Everything about him is big: big teeth, big jaw, big head, big hands—he even wears a big watch—but friends and family say nothing is larger than his heart.
Throughout his career, family and friends have been at the center of Warner's world. His three teenage daughters are the joy of his life, friends say, and he calls them regularly from the road. His wife, Lisa, the first Virginia first lady to keep her own name, is his rock. She grounds him and serves as a sounding board.
He's grown closer to his parents, who still live in Connecticut, in recent years as his mother has struggled with Alzheimer's. Because of his mother and a diabetic daughter, the debate over stem-cell research is a personal one for Warner.
Warner wants to be liked. Despite a large network of friends, he courts new ones every day. "Some days I say, 'Aren't our current friends enough?' " says Lisa.
At his annual Memorial Day pig roast at his farm—a gathering of 5,000 of his closest friends—he stands for hours shaking hands and greeting people, asking about kids, jobs, and spouses. On the day before Thanksgiving he hosts his Pilgrim's Lunch—a morning basketball game followed by a lunch that has stretched to five hours at the Palm in downtown DC.
Day to day he connects in smaller ways: When campaigning took him to the southern side of the state on the day of classmate Howard Gutman's son's bar mitzvah, he paid for a private plane to fly him up to the party. And he's well known for calling aides if they're under the weather.
As always, he's good at getting people together or pointing friends toward other like-minded people. In one way or another, former roommate Frederick says, "everyone has prospered for knowing him."
Garin adds, "It's not just that his friends are loyal to him—he's loyal to his friends."
Warner shows a dogged determination both personally and professionally—if he starts reading a book, he finishes it. On his desk is a sculpture of a businessman with a briefcase on his back, a nod to the myth of Sisyphus, the man whose great wisdom so annoyed the gods that he was forever doomed to push a rock up a hill. "Once he's sunk his teeth into something, he'll just sit down and stay with it until it's done," says Rimler.
Lisa recalls a family trip to Colorado in the mid-1990s when their car skidded off the road into a snowbank. When she and the kids returned from calling the police and a tow truck at a nearby rest area, Warner had dug the car out of the snowbank with his bare hands, nearly contracting frostbite in the process.
Warner still enjoys basketball games with aides and friends. Family vacations are all aimed at "doing things"—rafting, biking, skiing, and the like.
Last June Warner's competitive bent landed him in the hospital after an accident during the annual Bike Virginia tourism ride. In typical Warner fashion, he had completed the leg he was supposed to ride and decided to push on a few more miles. While braking for railroad tracks and holding his water bottle—he had averaged a healthy 15 miles per hour—he flipped over the handlebars, breaking two bones in his right hand. Emerging from the ambulance wearing a neck brace and displaying his bandaged hand, Warner gamely told reporters, "This is the best lesson yet for bicycle safety."
At work, he's tough on staffers—though they're quick to say he's fair. "If I screwed up, I knew the first guy I'd hear from was Mark Warner," says Jarding. "He made me a much better manager. He left very little to chance." Says Jim Dyke, a business associate and member of Warner's kitchen cabinet, "He wants to hear from people about what he's doing, what he's doing wrong, and what he should be working on."
"He chooses good people to be around him, people who argue with him," says Anita Rimler, who became secretary of the Commonwealth under Warner. "He chooses them for their strengths rather than choosing weak people around him so he can appear strong."
Aides know to prepare well before briefing him. "In most discussions, he's the smartest guy in the room or at least the one who cuts through the bull fastest," one aide says.
"He's frank," says Mudcat Saunders. "He'll tell you who cooked the cabbage. Sometimes it's combative, to be honest, but when you walked out of there you felt like you'd had a meeting. His biggest weakness is he's hardheaded as hell. But his greatest strength is that once the light bulb goes off, he can say, 'I was wrong. I was an a—hole. Let's go do it right.' "
An effective delegator and manager—that "best-managed state" accolade didn't come by accident—he isn't one to stand on ceremony. "When he needed to reach you, his secretary wouldn't place the call," says Delegate Vincent Callahan, the House appropriations chair. "You'd pick up the phone and he'd say, 'This is Mark Warner.' "
In working with Virginia's strongly Republican legislature and predominantly Republican congressional delegation, Warner made a point of being politically but not personally adversarial. He and George Allen, who once pooh-poohed Warner's credentials, generally talk about sports when they're together, and Warner, in typical fashion, has made friends with his former opponents, Mark Earley and Senator John Warner. "From a professional political standpoint, I don't know any Republicans who really don't like him," says the senator's campaign manager, John Hishta.
Mark Warner has a multimillion-dollar house in Alexandria and a 103-acre farm along the Rappahannock, but he lives more frugally than he could. Though he pours millions into his campaigns—or perhaps because of it—his staff says he's annoyingly cheap. Friends say he's never impressed by his wealth, but the sense of accomplishment from his success in business is certainly a part of Warner's persona. "People didn't see him as a rich guy; they saw him as a successful guy," pollster Garin says.
A presidential bid seems to be the natural next step for Warner, though friends and aides say that if he were confident in the direction of the country, he wouldn't run. His strengths—technology, globalization, and, especially in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the ability to make government work effectively—have come to the fore in political debate.
"Warner's not done," says journalist Shannon Henry. "He sees where he can make the most change right now, and it's in politics."
In November's off-year elections, Mark Warner's name wasn't on any ballot, but it was hard not to count him among the winners. His chosen successor, Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, won handily. When Kaine took the stage to declare victory, Warner was right beside him. The chants of "Oh-eight! Oh-eight!" were for him.
Warner is an appealing candidate for a Democratic Party searching for victory in what he calls the Thomas Friedman "World Is Flat" era: an energetic, attractive Southern governor possessed of a little charisma, successful in both politics and business, and with a vision and message for the future. Warner is, in many ways, the first elected leader of the Internet age—the first to reap its riches and to run with the vision of a technology-driven future, talking the talk from firsthand experience.
As 2008 draws near, Warner would seem to have history on his side: Since Lyndon Johnson, the only Democrats to win the presidency have been Southern governors. And as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan proved, ex-governors can use time on their hands to seek and win the presidency.
On the stump, Warner talks of the need to select candidates who are comfortable in their own skin—as Warner says, "someone who is comfortable not just in law firms and boardrooms but also at county fairs"—a dig at John Kerry. Although humor doesn't always come easily to Warner, he tries hard to make people laugh. When ringing cell phones interrupt his speeches, he says that where others hear an annoying sound, he hears "ka-ching, ka-ching."
So far, Warner's approach to 2008 seems right out of his 2001 playbook: He's lining up early talent and putting together a comprehensive strategy.
In June he tapped Monica Dixon, a former Al Gore aide, to set up his national leadership PAC—a necessity for the "I'm not officially running" national conversation Warner will have after leaving office on January 14. Jerome Armstrong, a top blogger and one of the powerhouses behind Howard Dean's presidential campaign, is heading up Warner's Internet operations, blogging the governor's trips and serving as a nucleus for early online support.
Warner has been busy on the precampaign trail, giving speeches in South Carolina, Florida, and New Hampshire; this month he returns to the state to headline its Democratic Party's Club 100 dinner. On the stump, he eschews the kinds of amorphous attacks on the Bush administration that other Democrats are prone to. He talks about his own vision of a more efficient government reliant on better technology.
A major asset in a presidential race would be his network of rich friends and their networks of rich friends. In the words of one Democratic operative, Warner comes "prebundled"—meaning he can raise impressive amounts of money outside the normal channels and won't have to compete for dollars with Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, or other candidates. In early December, Warner's first national fundraiser brought in more than $2H million, the largest fundraiser in Virginia history. The dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, in the heart of the Dulles tech corridor that helped make him who he is today, drew such area luminaries as Steve Case, Sheila Johnson, and former US senator John Breaux; more than 400 of Warner's friends each kicked in the $5,000 maximum contribution.
Deep pockets don't mean clear sailing. Although it's one of his key selling points, Warner is not the only "red"-state governor in the "blue" mix: Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa also lead states that Bush won in 2004.
And critics point to problems Warner must overcome: His proudest accomplishment was convincing a Republican legislature to raise taxes—the type of accomplishment GOP strategists salivate over. He has a short public record, no foreign-policy or national-security experience, and, some critics say, a chameleonlike air that makes him try to be all things to all people. Warner's aides say that while he does wear different hats at different times, depending on whether he's in the boardroom or at a county fair, he has a core set of values—and that his passions for helping others and making government work are genuine.
Ahead of Warner are three years of campaign appearances, grip-and-grins, chicken dinners, fundraisers, and a giant unknown in the person of the junior senator from New York.
But then again, he's not running. Yet.