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Will Allen and Warner Shine in 2008?
George Allen is a good ol' boy who chews tobacco. Mark Warner is a moderate who made millions from cell phones. They're political stars, but will either shine in 2008? By Drew Lindsay
Comments () | Published January 1, 2005
Features editor Drew Lindsay (dlindsay@washingtonian.com) lives in Northern Virginia and wrote about area high schools in October.

Virginia, known as "the mother of presidents," may be pregnant. Two of the state's leaders, Mark Warner and George Allen, emerged from the November election as rising stars with White House potential.

Allen, a first-termer in the Senate, heads the GOP's Senate campaign committee and won acclaim for getting seven new Republicans elected in 2004. Warner, who's entering the last year of his four-year term as governor, is being touted as a fresh-face Democrat who's proved himself in red-state America.

It's been 165 years since an elected official from Virginia landed on a major-party presidential ticket. Former congressman, governor, and senator John Tyler joined Whig nominee William Henry Harrison in 1840 to form the winning team of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too."

Allen and Warner are long shots to lead their party in 2008. It's more likely that Warner will challenge Allen in the Republican's Senate reelection bid in 2006. If either were to win impressively in that race, he would top lists of potential veeps.

Both could be on the national stage for years--Allen is 52, Warner is 50. The question is: Do they have what it takes?

AMBITION

"I'd score them both a ten in terms of ambition," says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. Allen told his first wife before they married that he might want to be president. A painting of John Tyler hangs in his office (he holds Tyler's old Senate seat), and he once had a dog named Tippy--for Tippecanoe.

Though Warner casts himself as an outsider, he's been climbing the political ladder since being a three-time class president in high school. He worked part-time opening mail for Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff while a George Washington University student and shunned big-money jobs out of Harvard Law School to become an $18,000-a-year fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

SIGNS THEY'RE EYEING 2008

"It looks like they're both gunning for it," says David Beiler, a political analyst and contributor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.

Allen, who stirred controversy as Virginia governor in 1997 when he issued a proclamation celebrating Confederate history, called this fall for the Senate to apologize for failing to pass antilynching bills before and during the civil-rights movement. "This is part of his cleanup effort to go national," Beiler says.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a potential presidential contender, may see Allen as a threat; according to Roll Call, Frist's political action committee has given money to all 14 GOP senators up for reelection in 2006--except Allen.

Warner, who won the governor's race in 2001, recently took over as head of the National Governors Association and is pushing education issues--same as Bill Clinton did when he headed the NGA.

Some Warner advisers say the time is right for a White House bid. "I've told him this: 'Forget about running for Senate,' " says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, the "rural strategist" in Warner's gubernatorial race. " 'I think in 2006, we ought to get on the plane and head to Iowa.' If we go in then, I think we'll win the caucuses."

HOW THEY DEFLECT QUESTIONS ABOUT 2008

"I am focused on the task at hand," says Allen, "and that is to do the best job possible for the people of Virginia. You never say 'never' in politics, but that'll be decided somewhere down the road."

Says Warner: "If you look at the last half dozen governors in Virginia, almost all of them, regardless of party, did not have very successful last years in office because they spent too much time focusing on what they were going to do next. . . . Folks hired me for four years; they're going to get four years of service."

FIRST-LADY FACTOR

Former cheerleader Susan Allen is the prototypical political wife. She is a natural campaigner and has few qualms about putting their three kids--Tyler, 16; Forrest, 13; and Brooke, 6--in campaign commercials.

Warner's wife, Lisa Collis, is more hesitant about the limelight. Before marrying Warner and quitting work to raise their daughters--Madison, 15, Gillian, 13, and Eliza, 10--she studied nutrition in Guatemala, ran health clinics for migrant workers, and worked for the World Bank.

As Warner's political aspirations grow, would Collis take his name, as Hillary Rodham did for Bill Clinton? Doubtful, say political observers.

HOW THEY'D CAMPAIGN

Allen wears cowboy boots, chews tobacco, and charms voters with an easygoing folksiness. His speeches are workmanlike and improving, though he's been known to fumble at the microphone.

Warner is a tireless campaigner, bounding from voter to voter with golden-retriever earnestness and cheer. He's still new to the stump but learning quickly.

PHOTO OPS YOU'D SEE

Look for Allen, former UVa quarterback and son of the late Redskins coach George Allen, to do a guest spot on Monday Night Football--his brother Bruce is general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

A Warner campaign likely will feature commercials with the candidate, who's a basketball wannabe and education advocate, shooting hoops with kids.

WHAT YOU WOULDN'T SEE IN THEIR TV ADS

Allen lives in a $1.6-million home along the Potomac south of Mount Vernon.

Warner, who's made a fortune in the cell-phone industry and high-tech ventures, owns one of Alexandria's most expensive homes, a Federal-style manse worth more than $5 million. He also has a 100-acre farm (including a vineyard and 1930s villa) on the Rappahannock River. Avant-garde architect Mark McInturff worked on a renovation of the Alexandria home as well as an award-winning addition to the villa.

HOW THEY'D RUN

In more than 20 years in politics, Allen's been faithful to core conservative principles--chiefly smaller government and fewer taxes. Voters in 2004 endorsed those ideas, he says, and it's up to Republicans to deliver.

"A lot of people voted for us because our ideas and our principles and our values are similar to theirs," he says.

Warner, who's angered Democrats with his support of gun-owner rights, wants to be seen as a moderate who'll stand against his party. "That was one thing that Senator Kerry never did," he says. "There was never any kind of public break with Democratic orthodoxy the way that Clinton did."

Both men can tout their record as Virginia governor as proof that they're can-do executives. Allen's term saw sweeping criminal-justice, welfare, and education reforms. With Virginia's budget in disarray, Warner campaigned for governor as a fiscal conservative, then cut spending and won a tax increase by working with Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature.

HOW THEY'D BE ATTACKED

Allen's opponents would portray him as an extremist who would divide the country. He once spoke of knocking Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats." In his 1994 gubernatorial inaugural address, he promised to "fight the beast of tyranny and oppression that our federal government has become."

Republicans will cast Warner as a rich, elitist liberal--a Mid-Atlantic version of John Kerry. Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist's antitax group, already features Warner in a WANTED poster and charges him with flip-flopping on a no-tax-increase campaign pledge.

WHY THEY MAY NOT BE ON THE TICKET IN 2008

Big-name Republicans lining up for the race--John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Chuck Hagel, Bill Frist--could make it hard for Allen, a junior senator, to shine. His work for the Senate campaign committee doesn't appear to have helped him establish a national fundraising base; only a handful of donors to his own political action committee come from outside Virginia or the Washington area.

Warner is a political rookie whose only ballot-box win came against former state attorney general Mark Earley, considered a weak candidate. "That was a razor-thin victory," Sabato says. "I'm not sure he could win reelection if he had to run again."

WHY THEY WILL BE ON THE TICKET IN 2008

While his father was coaching the Los Angeles Rams in the 1960s, the teenage Allen met Ronald Reagan, then California governor and on his way to becoming president and Allen's political hero.

The senator is seen by some Republicans as Reagan's natural heir. Though committed to conservative principles that rile many voters, he packages them in sunny terms. He also shares Reagan's ability to connect with average Joes. "Unlike Kerry or Gore, he does not talk 'at' people," says Susan Liberty, former chief of staff to GOP congressman Tom Davis.

Allen is popular among conservative Republicans and doesn't shy from partisan wrangling--both qualities that would make him a welcome addition to a 2008 ticket topped by a moderate. GOP congressional staffers surveyed by The Washingtonian each election year regularly make him a top choice for president.

Warner's business background and bipartisan management of the state distinguish him from other Democratic contenders. Recent polls show that nearly six in ten Virginians rate his performance as "good" or "excellent." If federal budget deficits are a big issue in 2008, his work with Republicans on the tax package would play well.

Like Clinton, Warner understands the power of empathy. He makes voters believe that he understands and cares about their problems. Despite his high-tech fortune and his suburban upbringing in Connecticut, he carried several rural counties in the southern part of the state in his race for governor--something Dems hadn't done in decades.

He won not by playing the part of good ol' boy but by listening to voters, says Saunders, who's worked for Southern senators John Edwards and Bob Graham: "He is as good a retail politician as you'll ever come across to take into rural areas."

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