A Tale of Two Warners

With John Warner gobbling up headlines, it’s a good time to return to the question of his political future – namely, does the 80-year-old Republican have one?

The betting for some time now is that he doesn’t, and that he will hang it up next year when his fifth terms expires. Certainly, his almost non-existent fundraising ($500 in the first quarter of this year) encourages that talk, not to mention the fact that he lost his Armed Services Committee chairmanship when the Democrats reclaimed the Senate in January.

He’s been coy publicly, but it would be truly stunning if he opts to run again. When he does make his retirement official, it will set off what could be the hottest Senate race in the country in ’08.

Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964, is a newly-minted swing state. Sweeping demographic changes in the Washington, D.C. suburbs have essentially split the state into two political regions – the fast-growing Democratic north, and the traditionally conservative southern and western areas. Since 2001, Democrats have won three of four statewide elections, and the national party is primed to target the Old Dominion’s 13 electoral votes in 2008.

For now, the most likely Republican candidate is Tom Davis, a Congressman from Fairfax County who has watched his district’s electorate shift more and more to the left since he was elected in 1994. To keep up, Davis has moderated himself – particularly on the Iraq war – and he knows that running statewide in 2008 will probably require further distancing from the national G.O.P. The problem, of course, is that a conservative-dominated G.O.P convention picks statewide candidates in Virginia, so Davis is no shoo-in for the Republican nomination. Still, he’s probably the party’s strongest potential ’08 candidate.

But the real suspense is on the Democratic side. What will Mark Warner, the almost-presidential candidate who left Virginia’s governorship with an approval rating near 80 percent in 2005, do? Warner clearly wants back in the game, and he has three fascinating choices: run for the Senate in ’08; run for Governor again in ’09 (the state’s one-term limit guarantees an open seat then); or angle for the Vice-Presidency next summer.

National Democrats drool over the prospect of a Warner Senate candidacy and are aggressively courting him. A few ago, I’m told, he had pretty much convinced himself to run. But now – as seems to be his habit – he’s apparently having second thoughts, intrigued by the V.P. talk.

On paper, he’s a nice fit for a Hillary-led ticket, since he’s everything she’s not: a fresh-faced southern governor with business-world experience. He could also be a fit for Obama – the candidate many of Warner’s top backers moved to when he got out of the White House race – although Obama would face pressure to select a running-mate with considerable foreign policy experience.

If Warner decides to run for the Senate, he would remove himself from V.P. consideration. But if he begged off the Senate race, he could still run for governor again in ’09 if he got passed over by next year by Hillary or Barack. Of course, by doing that he’d also jeopardize Democrats’ chances of winning another Virginia Senate seat.

For now, he can wait, since John Warner hasn’t officially announced his retirement. But he will soon, and that’s when things will get interesting.