Earlier this week, I wrote about the recent history of Democratic convention keynote speakers and how many had gone on to national prominence, and even – in the case of 2004 keynoter Barack Obama – to a future Democratic nomination. This track record is partly attributable to the actual speeches that were delivered (particularly in the cases of Obama and Mario Cuomo), but also to common sense: The keynote slot tends to go to promising leaders who are seen as representing the future of the party.
Not surprisingly, then, the man who is scheduled to deliver this year’s keynote address, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, now finds himself being described as a rising star in the party. But Warner’s story is more complicated than that. In his case, it could be argued that the keynote slot represents almost a consolation prize and that a series of poor decisions and miscalculations over the past few years cost him an opportunity for a much bigger role this summer.
It’s hard to believe now, but less than three years ago, there was a rapidly building consensus that Mark Warner would be the main alternative for Democrats to Hillary Clinton in 2008 – and that, with his moderate background, Southern appeal, and strong fund-raising operation, he’d have a decent chance of wresting the nomination from her.
At the end of 2005, Warner completed his sole term as Virginia’s governor, his approval rating near 80 percent. To national Democrats still smarting from their ’04 futility (and more red state/blue state-conscious than ever), Warner seemed like a gift from above. He’d governed a red state like a Democrat (he raised taxes!), but his popularity was almost universal, crossing all partisan, ideological and demographic lines. Republicans in the state’s conservative southwest corner seemed particularly enamored of him. Many national Democrats looking in on Virginia saw in Warner the formula that would finally win over Ohio, Florida and all of the other stubborn red states that never warmed up to Al Gore and John Kerry.
When he left the governorship, Warner set out to run for president. He put a PAC together and ran it like a presidential campaign, raking in big money and traveling the country to dole it to local candidates and to meet the party faithful. The reviews were mostly good. His stump speech focused on the theme of future vs. past. His style, message and background seemed particularly well suited for New Hampshire.
But then Barack Obama unexpectedly took an interest in seeking the nomination. He showed up at a small campaign events for candidates in the ’06 elections and drew crowds numbering in the thousands. Obama’s surprise emergence seemed to scare off Warner, who announced in late October ’06 that he wouldn’t be a candidate in 2008.
This is where his miscalculations begin. A case can be made that he was right to get out when he did; that – as John Edwards and Bill Richardson learned – there just wasn’t any room for a third candidate in a race featuring Obama and Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t mean that he would have been hurt by the experience of running, even if he ended up finishing far off the pace in the early contests. By sticking in, Warner would have introduced himself to a national audience and – quite possibly – emerged as everyone’s favorite VP pick.