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Could Mark Warner have been the best retail politician in Virginia history? We'll never know.



Len Bias immediately comes to mind.

A bit cliché and simplistic, perhaps, but consider: Bias, if you recall, was the greatest basketball player ever to play for the University of Maryland. He was Michael Jordan with a jump shot, a well-mannered kid who was drafted by the aging Boston Celtics in the twilight of Larry Bird's career in 1986.

Bias was as athletic as Jordan and nearly as graceful, resembling a Greek god when he slashed and soared to the hoop. But two nights after the Celtics made him the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft, he died of a cocaine overdose. News reports said it was the first time Bias had taken drugs.

The entire sports world mourned not only for Bias, but also for the loss of a potential legend.

Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor who bowed out of the presidential race last week, just might be the Len Bias of Virginia politics.

I profiled Warner only once, following him over a period of about two weeks last fall, and what I keep thinking about is how local news media outright adored him. During a press conference with U.S. Sen. John Warner on speakerphone, Mark Warner was cutting up with the capital press corps, making faces as the elder Warner spoke with his trademark militarism.

The same was true with the NASCAR fans who lined up at Richmond International Raceway to shake his hand. Warner's gift was his charisma, his ability to charm his way into the political hearts of the Bubbas in Southwest Virginia and then convince Northern Virginia millionaires to open their checkbooks.

Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, the Democratic political operative from Roanoke, told me that Warner was the best "retail politician" he'd ever seen.

Granted, Saunders was an architect of Warner's successful gubernatorial campaign, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest he may be right. If Warner were running for U.S. Sen. George Allen's seat, it's likely the race would already be over.

On Thursday, Oct. 12, as he sat at the head of a banquet table at The Jefferson Hotel facing a room full of shell-shocked reporters, Warner seemed like a man who was dropping out of the race against his will. He did want to run, but couldn't. It was his family that had to come first, his teenage daughters, his wife, Lisa Collis. He insisted they would have supported him if he'd decided to run.

"I don't know precisely what's in the man's mind, but it all sounded convincing to me, about family and wanting a life," says Larry J. Sabato, the longtime political science professor at the University of Virginia. He spoke with Warner by phone shortly before the Richmond press conference. "You have to be a little bit insane to run for president," Sabato says. "As it turns out, Mark Warner might be too sane to run."

Warner seemed to know this was probably his one and only chance to run for president. It's difficult to envision another chance quite like this. Warner, who made his millions betting on the cell-phone industry just before it took off, is a master at buying and investing just before the rocket launches. His own political stock will likely never be as high as it has been during the last nine months.

Whoever the Republicans pick to succeed Bush will likely be as vulnerable as any Republican candidate has been since Bush Sr., and Warner had become the leading anti-Hillary, moderate pick for the Democratic nod.

"Things will probably never be as aligned as they are now," Warner told reporters, all but ruling out speculation that he may run as a vice-presidential candidate.

Warner may pursue Sen. John Warner's seat if he retires in 2008, or perhaps run for governor again in 2010. Some say Mark Warner may have been too moderate to energize the Democratic base, and he did convince the General Assembly to pass the biggest tax increase in Virginia's history, making him perhaps more vulnerable.

But Warner also had a higher approval rating than the long-revered George Allen as he finished out his term as governor — 76 percent, according to one poll. And the Republicans' attempt to stick Warner's successor as another "pro-tax" liberal fell embarrassingly flat in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign. Hence, Gov. Tim Kaine.

Warner sold a $1.4 billion tax hike. And even after a giant surplus appeared to negate the need for the increase, Virginians barely flinched. What could he have done as president? We'll probably never know.

One of Warner's friends, Gerald McGowan, an investment banker from Northern Virginia who first met Warner in the early days of the cell-phone industry in 1982, says he knew something wasn't quite right a few weeks ago.

"I could sense that this wasn't a pro forma statement, that he hadn't made up his mind," McGowan recalls of Warner's efforts to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign. "I sensed that this wasn't a done deal."

McGowan, who lost his wife to cancer more than 11 years ago, says he understands Warner's desire to be with family. Warner's wife had long been against Warner running and had recently warmed to "neutral," Warner told reporters last week. But McGowan can't help but be disappointed. He knows this was Warner's only shot at running for president.

"He realizes there is no second chance," McGowan says. "There is not going to be second time." S

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