Make no mistake; this tax-and-spend liberal is well-liked within the NASCAR machinery. Once, he even took a Formula One car for a test drive, pushing the pedal well past 100 mph, according to reports. When Gretchen Wilson, the "Redneck Woman" pop country singer, belts out the national anthem, the guv pegs her sloppy lip-synching.
"She's mouthing it, isn't she?" he says with a curious grin.
In the heat of the gubernatorial campaign to determine his successor, Warner doesn't have to be here. The two men who hope to succeed him aren't — not here, at least, in the pits. Warner, though, wouldn't miss it. And his presence after a long stress-filled week managing the aftershocks of Hurricane Katrina (one sleep-deprived press secretary, Kevin Hall, guesses he clocked at least 100 hours) offers a key insight into why Warner has emerged as a legitimate contender for the Democratic Party's presidential ticket in 2008. His 76 percent approval rating, higher than the president's, higher than Virginia Sen. George Allen's — a presidential hopeful in his own right — is owed in large part to Warner's ability to infiltrate and woo Republican voters in Bubba country, where fakers are sniffed out quicker than stink on skunk.
During his run for governor in 2001, Warner's courtship of Southwest Virginia has become the stuff of legend. It's a story that's been told before, but only recently has it come into full context. With the Democrats hungry for a winner — and the Republicans growing weaker every day as Bush struggles in the wake of Katrina and in Iraq amid a national gas crisis — Warner is quickly gaining national clout. What started this summer as mild flirting (it was first reported in mid-June that Warner had tapped Monica Dixon, once top adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, to lead his presidential toe-dipping) has blossomed into full-fledged speculation, aided in no small part by Warner himself.
"In the beginning, I wondered whether it could be taken seriously nationally," says Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, "and that question has been answered in the affirmative."
Warner is currently one of three moderate candidates with a realistic shot at winning the Democratic nomination, Sabato says. The landscape can obviously change over the next three years, but Sabato can already hear the party's drumbeat for a centrist candidate if the Democrat's current front-runner, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, a figure reviled in Bubba country, makes a run for the White House.
"It's easy to see him win the nomination," Sabato says, especially when you focus on Warner's reputation as financial turnaround specialist through the lens of the national economy. "The door is open. Will he walk through that door? Will the American people welcome him through the door? No one knows. It's way too early."
The story of Warner's political ascension starts in the fall of 1996, when, as a young 41-year-old entrepreneur from Northern Virginia, he challenged Republican U.S. Sen. John Warner for his seat in the Senate. His friends thought he was crazy. Pundits predicted a mauling at the polls. Few gave Mark Warner any chance against the elder statesman, a beloved straight-shooter and former Marine revered in practically all corners of state by Republicans and Democrats. His campaign, most figured, was a sacrificial one aimed at gaining name recognition for a future bid.
Mark Warner blanketed the state, nonetheless, campaigning tirelessly, spending more than $10 million of his own personal fortune to dethrone the incumbent. He lost the race, but wound up winning a jaw-dropping 47 percent of the vote — an accomplishment that stunned even some of his closest friends.
"When he told me that he was going to run for the Senate seat and kind of just jump right in, I was shocked. I just didn't think he was ready for it," recalls Gerald McGowan, an investment banker from Northern Virginia who first met Warner in 1982, in those early days of the cellular-phone industry. "I just saw him improve day by day, month by month, until the end he almost won that thing."
Out of practically nowhere, Warner was thrust into the top realm of Virginia's Democratic Party. Looking back, McGowan wonders why he ever doubted him. Warner, he says, has always had a knack for learning new businesses on the fly. He made millions mastering an industry that few grasped in the mid-1980s (Warner was a co-founder of the wireless phone company that eventually became Nextel).
Politics, it turned out, was no exception.
"This is a guy with an extremely fast learning curve," McGowan explains. "One of the things he saw when he fought that race — he hadn't really appreciated Southwest Virginia. Then he spent the next couple of years in Southwest Virginia. He identified a problem — that was: How do I appeal to these people? He said, well, one way is to do something for them."
After the 1996 election was over, he went right back to work. He focused his energies on those rural parts of the state — places, he found, that were increasingly losing manufacturing jobs and entire industries to countries with cheaper labor overseas. A globalizing high-tech world responsible for his personal fortunes, it turned out, was also making rural economies in the South irrelevant.
"The unrealized potential of an information age is the promise that you can build it anywhere," Warner says. "We've proven you don't need to have the jobs right next to each other, because we're seeing jobs move to India and China. But what we've not proven is how do you take that same job that's in Northern Virginia and move it to Southwest Virginia? … You haven't seen Microsoft, or you haven't seen Hewlett-Packard or someone else put 500 people in some rural part of the country."
After four years as governor, Warner hints that may soon change. There are strategies the state can employ to make those parts of the country more attractive for "mid-level technology jobs" that can't as easily be farmed out overseas at the cheapest rate of labor. Instead of closing the borders and advocating for further trade restrictions in China or Central America, an easy political sell in rural parts, Warner instead established worker-assistance outposts throughout Southwest and Southside Virginia in 2002, when the textile industry in places like Martinsville began hemorrhaging jobs. Warner's administration established programs that helped the unemployed get their high school diplomas, or GEDs, in 90 days and began heavily recruiting NASCAR parts manufacturers to Southwestern Virginia. In four years, Warner has lured more than 16,000 new jobs to the most rural reaches of the state.
Perhaps the most important piece of his 2001 campaign strategy involved "putting my money where my mouth is," Warner says. He did so by establishing four regional venture capital funds across the state, with one each in Southside and Southwest Virginia. He took his business partners from up north to rural Virginia and encouraged them to invest. McGowan was one of them. "He intentionally and purposefully took a lot of his high-tech and business friends down there," McGowan recalls.
While admittedly the venture capital funds weren't a raging success — three of the four are still active — Warner's efforts started to gain him credibility. "I think people in rural America can see through you if you're phony," Warner says. "I think, generally speaking, a Democrat's agenda — in terms of investing, in terms of focusing on education, job growth — is better for rural communities, particularly rural communities that have been hard hit by change. I don't think this administration in Washington, or the previous administration in Richmond — they didn't do anything for hard-hit communities. When Tultex closed in Martinsville [in 2000, the manufacturer went bankrupt and 1,700 people lost their jobs], there was a complete lack of focus from Richmond on the problem down there."
A growing crisis in the Southwest — Tultex was one of many textile manufacturers that in the late 1990s either went out of business or uprooted and moved overseas, where labor is cheaper — meant that by 2001 Warner, who had won the Democratic nod to challenge Republican Mark Earley for the executive mansion, had a window of opportunity. Southwest voters might have dismissed previous Democrats, but Warner had their full attention. His message was rooted in economics.
Getting a Democrat back into the executive mansion wouldn't be easy, but at the close of Gov. Jim Gilmore's administration, the political environment was ripe for a change in administration. The phaseout of the car tax had been stymied by a growing budget deficit, first reported to be in range of $300 million to $400 million as the 2001 campaign heated up. Despite the deficit, and the Democrats' argument that eight years of Republican leadership was bankrupting the state, the well-liked, socially conservative Mark Earley, the Republican attorney general tapped to inherit the governorship, was still the favorite. Nationally, it was a good time to be running as a Republican. A year earlier George W. Bush had easily won Virginia with a campaign that focused on family values and faith; Earley was cut from a similar cloth.
Warner knew early on that he needed additional firepower to break through the social armor of Virginia's rural Republicans. Instead of fighting on their terms, however, he took a different tack.
He made two critical hires to bolster his credibility. The first was Roanoke real estate developer Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a close friend of Richard Cranwell, the powerful former state delegate who now serves as chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Saunders had limited experience in the political world, but he used his considerable contacts to cultivate Warner's rural strategy. Mudcat started by securing a sponsorship in the NASCAR truck series, something Republicans initially mocked, and then hired two bluegrass legends, Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury, close friends of Saunders', to write and produce a folksy campaign jingle.
Finally, Saunders advised Warner to stay away from the social issues and focus on Democratic mainstays, something he likes to call "kitchen table issues," such as the economy and education.
"If we had been disingenuous and painted Mark as a Mark Twain type of guy, it wouldn't have gone. We just told the truth," Saunders recalls. "Mark says he respected the culture of NASCAR fans. He respected the culture of our music. He respected the fact that most of us get on our knees and pray."
Most important, Saunders says, Warner focused on how Southwest Virginia could rebuild its economy. "For years, everybody was calling rural Virginia a liability. And he started calling us an asset," Saunders says of the 2001 campaign. "Bubba hates disingenuous politics. Mark came out here and said things are going to be tough. He had no idea the scope of the problems. … But he comes off as genuinely caring about the problems that we face today.
"You can't fake it. Bubba will catch it every time."
Still, Warner, the high-tech businessman from Hartford, Conn., had to close the deal. A lanky 6'4" with a disarming smile that's all teeth, Warner looks comfortable working any crowd, from county fairgoers to corporate boardrooms. Saunders says Warner's ability to connect with real people is uncanny. "Mark loves to campaign in the country," Saunders says. "Mark likes to cut up and laugh. Mark used to use self-deprecating humor all the time. Country people love people who can laugh at themselves."
Warner had another hurdle to overcome: It's what Saunders calls the "gun test." Winning the endorsement of the National Rifle Association is next to impossible for a Democrat in Virginia, political observers say, but Warner took up arms anyhow. He created the now famous "Sportsmen for Warner" campaign committee, and blanketed the Southwest with 10,000 4-by-8 campaign signs declaring his love of the outdoors.
He needed help, though, to gain credibility. For that he made his second critical hire — Sherry Crumley, a well-known hunting enthusiast from Botetourt County who a year earlier led a statewide ballot initiative enabling a constitutional amendment protecting the rights of Virginians to hunt and fish (or securing the rights of criminals to obtain guns, depending on your political viewpoint). Crumley was a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation and had chaired the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia. Her husband, Jim, is regarded almost as highly: He created hunting camouflage specifically for the hills of Virginia — the line is called Trebark. In hunting circles, the Crumleys are considered royalty.
At first, Sherry Crumley declined Warner's offer. She rebuffed him at least three times, but on the last denial, she extended Warner an invitation to visit her and her husband's farm, if Warner ever found himself in those parts.
In April 2001, Warner took them up on the offer.
"He came during turkey season, and we hunted the next day," Crumley recalls. "We heard turkeys, but nothing ever had gotten close to us. We had a lot of time to talk."
Warner convinced the Crumleys that he was one of them. "My husband said we need to do whatever we can to help Mark Warner get elected governor," she remembers of the morning after Warner left for Richmond. "I called the next day and said, 'I'm yours.'" It helped that Crumley remembered how Earley waited to support the constitutional amendment in the "eleventh hour" of the 2000 campaign.
With Crumley and Mudcat, also an avid hunter, Warner passed the "gun test" with flying colors. On the campaign trail, Crumley says Warner had no problem convincing hunters that he respected their hobby. In Lunenburg County, in fact, Warner even took second place in a turkey shoot, Crumley recalls. (After he took office, he also appeared on a hunting show on ESPN wearing blaze orange, and shot geese.) Most important, Crumley says, Warner worked the gun vote so relentlessly in 2001 that, in the end, the NRA decided not to officially endorse either candidate — in effect a victory for Warner.
"What they did was denied us the endorsement," says a Republican operative who worked on the Earley campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There was no way the NRA was going to endorse a Democrat. [But] the typical NRA grassroots apparatus that gets unleashed during an endorsement did not happen for us. That spoke volumes to single-issue voters. Rather than pull that lever in the booth instinctively, they were giving it the look-see."
Meanwhile, the Republicans were duking it out in Richmond. "That year was the first year in the commonwealth when there was no budget agreement, and it appeared Republicans couldn't govern," laments the GOP operative.
Earley was slightly behind in early September, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had another damaging effect on him — it froze the campaign. Both candidates vowed to refrain from any television campaigning for about three weeks.
Meanwhile, Warner gained enough credibility to win a few second looks, slipping into the executive mansion with 51.4 percent of the vote in Southwest Virginia.
Can he repeat the performance in 2008? His backers say there is no question. Saunders says he gets about two dozen calls a week from his political friends asking about Warner's presidential bid. While Warner hasn't committed, Saunders says he's ready.
"I know you're supposed to hold down expectations, but expectations are through the roof," he says. "We'll win the whole damn thing."
Others, however, say it's a little premature.
"He is in the second-tier long-shot category right now for 2008," says Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "He's really good in the small-group gathering, and the one-on-one type meetings. And he's very engaging in those small settings. But that's what you would expect from a successful businessperson. This is a guy who is successful in getting other people to write him checks."
Warner's sometimes halting, disjointed speaking style — he's naturally a fast talker whose thoughts often intersect, making him, at times, difficult to follow — and his often bureaucratic disposition on the stump will be a liability in a national campaign, Rozell says. He is a moderate, no doubt, but with that label comes a certain blandness. Rozell sees Warner, a still relatively young politician at 50, taking a first jab at national office — not, inconceivably, as Hillary Clinton's running mate — and possibly taking another shot in 2012.
Still, Rozell marvels at Warner's previous success.
"It's not that he just made himself into a Bubba. He spent a lot of time in different areas of the state touting his business background as something that he could deliver to those parts of the state that needed it most," Rozell says. "He was spreading money all over. Even a man as wealthy as Mark Warner can only do so much of that nationwide. It's hard to replicate that model nationally."
Warner's now-famous tax increase could also become liability. His $1.5 billion tax hike, to balance the budget, was the biggest in Virginia history. It garnered bipartisan support, but the current gubernatorial campaign is an early test for how it sits with voters. And regardless of who wins the governor's mansion, Virginia's reputation as the best-managed state in the country — according to the January issue of Governing Magazine — may mean little in 2008.
Warner, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, is fond of saying that Virginia is moving in the right direction. But will it still be moving in that direction four years from now? And can he sell his cut-and-tax philosophy, if the label fits, to anti-tax Republicans?
"The thing that constantly amazes me about the opposition is: If you look at the lowest tax states in the country, they are not the states with the fastest-growing economy, they are not the states with the best schools. They are not the states that have the most jobs or the lowest unemployment rate," Warner says. "I think one of the reasons why Virginians generally think we're moving in the right direction is because they've been sold a 'you can have it all for nothing' approach. And they saw where it landed us. It landed us on the verge of bankruptcy."
In the end, it may be a hard sell. But Warner's persistence, if he decides to run, will again surprise some people, advocates say. If history holds, he'll pull out all the stops and outwork everyone. Heading into the homestretch, the relentless Warner appears to be picking it up a notch.
At the state capital on Aug. 23, he even led the pep rally, waving the checkered flag on Capitol Square a few hours after flying in NASCAR's top executives for the red-carpet treatment, aimed at landing NASCAR's much-sought-after Hall of Fame, a planned $103 million tourist magnet expected to generate millions in economic spinoff.
In late August, Warner was the ultimate pitchman — making the case that Richmond, situated at the epicenter of the East Coast, was the ideal location to satisfy the South's rabid race fanatics and quench NASCAR's thirst to infiltrate the Northeast. "Virginia is not just for lovers," Warner said to cheers as hundreds of NASCAR fans gathered at Capitol Square, "Virginia is for lovers of NASCAR, specifically."
The lavish treatment clearly impressed George Pyne, the stone-faced chief operating officer of NASCAR who couldn't help but acknowledge, with a smile, the energy of the fans and the Warner sales team. "There is no guesswork as to why Virginia is one of the best-managed states in the country," he told the crowd. "At the end of the day, you've got to feel wanted. And we certainly did today from the governor on down."
Richmond may or may not win the Hall of Fame, and Warner's recent campaigning with Democratic hopeful Kaine may or may not be enough to keep the Democrats in the governor's mansion. But Warner is acting more like a politician who is just getting started than a outgoing governor weighing his options.
He hasn't ruled out running for governor again either.
"If I could run for re-election right now, I'd run for re-election," he says. S
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