Whither Mark Warner?

Around this time last year Mark Warner was the savvy bettor’s choice for the Democratic presidential nomination, possessed of an explosive breakout potential unmatched by his fellow non-Hillary contenders. But then Barack Obama unexpectedly stepped forward, pushing Mr. Warner, and several others, to the sideline.

And yet, it is now more of a sure bet than ever that Mr. Warner, forced out of Virginia’s governorship in 2005 by his state’s archaic one-term limit, will be running for office next summer. The only question is which one.

Campaigning for a state legislative candidate in the Old Dominion last week, Mr. Warner mischievously flirted with the party faithful: “I still have something to offer. I may come back in the not-so-distant future and ask you to hire me again,” he said.

Not that his words were a revelation. Mr. Warner had abruptly called off his White House effort – which had stirred considerable early buzz and attracted some of the party’s financial heavy-hitters – in October 2006 when he saw that Mr. Obama would soon be stealing his oxygen. The Nextel co-founder’s thirst for politics – and intrigue with the presidency – were unaffected.

To re-enter the electoral fray, the 52-year-old Warner, who left office with an approval rating approaching 80 percent, has no shortage of options. He could seek to win back his old job as Governor, which, thanks to the same term-limits law that confounded him in ’05, will be open to him again in 2009. Or he could pursue what will almost certainly be an open Virginia Senate seat in 2008 (pending 80-year-old John Warner’s still-unannounced retirement). Or might he eschew both of those campaigns so that he’s not tied down should Hillary or Barack come calling when it’s time to pick a running-mate?

Everything that is known about Mr. Warner suggests that another term as governor would agree with him far better than would a six-year posting in the world’s most deliberative body. As a former technology executive who amassed a fortune in the business world before turning to politics full-time, he is more temperamentally suited to run a government than he is to spend his days listening to floor speeches and quibbling with his colleagues during bill mark-ups. And surely, given his political acumen (he managed Doug Wilder’s historic gubernatorial campaign in 1989), Mr. Warner knows from history that his long-term presidential viability would be better preserved with a return to the State House, and not a diversion to the U.S. Capitol.

And running for Governor would be a far easier lift than campaigning for the Senate. In seeking federal office, much of the considerable goodwill Mr. Warner has accumulated in red state Virginia would be for naught, with Republican-leaning voters returning to their partisan roots; they wouldn’t be voting against Mr. Warner – they’d be voting against a Democratic Senate, and for a Republican one. But in a race for Governor, those same voters would be far less hesitant to embrace Mr. Warner. Here, a parallel can be drawn to then-Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld’s bid to unseat John Kerry in 1996, which failed (by seven points) even though Mr. Weld had secured re-election in 1994 with a record-smashing 71 percent of the vote. If Mr. Warner wants a second go-round as Governor in 2009, it’s hard to imagine his fellow Virginians refusing him.

But saying no to the Senate is not quite that easy, mainly because the minute John Warner announces his retirement (which may not be for some time), you can count on a full-court press by national Democrats to lure Mark Warner into the race to succeed him. They will beg him, they will flatter him, and they will make promises to him, knowing that a Warner candidacy would give Democrats a real shot at a monopoly on both of Virginia’s Senate seats – and a lock on control of the Senate for the next two years.

The race would be winnable. It’s true that Virginia is a red state, and one that hasn’t sided with the national Democratic ticket since LBJ’s landslide in 1964 (and even then, only by seven points), but it’s equally true that its political demography is rapidly changing. In reaction to the Bush administration and (until last year) Republican Congressional excesses, the densely-populated D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia (where Mr. Warner, an Alexandria resident, lives) have turned on the national G.O.P., leading to Democratic triumphs in the last two statewide elections – Tim Kaine’s gubernatorial win in ’05 and Jim Webb’s razor-thin Senate victory over George Allen last year. George W. Bush carried the state by 8 points in 2004, but neither party contested it. Now Democrats talk of competing for Virginia’s 15 electoral votes in 2008, a task made that much more achievable if Mr. Warner were to appear on the ballot in the ’08 Senate race.

For now, the most likely Republican nominee is Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who is also from the D.C. suburbs. In a race against Mr. Warner, his selling point would be his party label, not his personality.

Mr. Warner owes much of the presidential chatter that surrounds him to the ’05 election, when nearly single-handedly he steered Mr. Kaine, his bland Lieutenant Governor, to victory, a triumph that reverberated in Democratic circles across the country. Mark Warner: Red State Hero was thusly born. Capturing a Senate seat next year could cement that reputation.

But by jumping into an ’08 Senate race, Mr. Warner would be removing himself from Vice-Presidential consideration, since the VP pick won’t be made until well into the summer – and well into the Senate campaign. By contrast, Mr. Warner would not need to signal his gubernatorial intentions until after the Democratic White House ticket is set. On paper, his corporate and gubernatorial experience would fit better with Hillary Clinton, a foreign policy-conversant Senator with a globally-influential husband, than with Mr. Obama, who would face pressure to balance his ticket with a more internationally-experienced Number Two than Mr. Warner. But, while he is officially neutral, there are signs that Mr. Warner supports Mr. Obama’s campaign.

And so it seems that the most likely scenario for Warner is a “thanks, but no thanks” from next year’s Democratic nominee, followed by a swift entry into the ’09 gubernatorial race – and a runaway victory. At 55 then, he’d be plenty young enough to run the next time the presidential nomination comes free.

In the meantime, we can probably dismiss the idea that Mark Warner is sitting out the ’08 campaign. Whither Mark Warner?