"They say it all starts in Iowa"

Already out on the road with other potential 2008 Oval Office contenders, Mark Warner lacks Hillary's -- or Obama's -- star power. But he's a newcomer to watch.

Published September 27, 2006 11:14AM (EDT)

Like a lounge singer out to woo his audience one heart at a time, a peripatetic Mark Warner, cordless microphone in hand, wandered from table to table as he delivered his stump speech -- a calling card to introduce the former Virginia governor and to hint at his dreams for 2008 and beyond. Warner, purportedly here to aid local Democrats, was speaking last week to roughly 100 party activists at a steak fry in an open-sided pavilion overlooking the Mississippi River, a body of water that has seen its share of White House dreamers.

"They say it all starts in Iowa," Warner declared at the beginning of his presentation, paying homage to the state's plus-size importance as the site of the first presidential caucus. Thirty minutes later, on the off-chance that someone in the audience believed that he is in Iowa for its crisp mountain air, Warner concluded, "The rest of the country is watching Iowa ... It all starts right here."

Indeed it does, earlier than ever. Every would-be occupant of the Oval Office in the Democratic Party -- with the conspicuous exception of New York's Hillary Clinton, who feigns single-minded devotion to revitalizing the economies of Syracuse and Utica -- has been making the rounds of the pivotal caucus and primary states like vaudevillians working the Orpheum Circuit. As Warner boasted in his speech, since he left office in January, "I've been running around the country -- 62 trips to 29 states and six countries. I never thought that being unemployed would be this hard."

Instead of hawking a laundry list of policy prescriptions, Warner in this get-acquainted phase is selling himself and his successful record in Virginia, a state that has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964. Warner offers a toothy smile, an easy sense of humor, a zest for the handshakes and arm touches that create instant intimacy, along with a compelling autobiography, especially for a Democrat. (A successful entrepreneur, Warner made more than $200 million in cellular telephones -- though the wealthiest potential candidate in the Democratic field, he never mentions money in his speeches -- before becoming a red-state governor.)

Rather than projecting star power like, say, Barack Obama, who recently headlined Iowa's most celebrated steak fry (the one organized by Sen. Tom Harkin), Warner offers staying power. Even though handicapping the Iowa caucuses 16 months in advance is a mug's game, Warner is a would-be candidate whose current goal in the Hawkeye State is merely to be competitive. He starts out far behind outgoing Gov. Tom Vilsack; Clinton, of course; John Edwards, who surged from nowhere to almost win the 2004 caucuses; and John Kerry, who used victory here as a launching pad to the nomination. But Warner intrigues Democrats both in Iowa and nationally as the fresh face in the presidential field, the contender who has made the most visible strides toward becoming a national candidate this year.

Among those intrigued in Burlington is Elaine Baxter, a former Iowa secretary of state and also one of the architects of Jimmy Carter's 1976 victory here -- the legendary political event that transformed the once-ignored caucuses into the bull's-eye on the political map. After Warner finished his formal remarks at the steak fry and paused to take questions, Baxter whispered to me, "He's good. He comes across as real -- and not packaged."

The first question was (no surprise) about Iraq. Warner, who only recently and belatedly acknowledged the need for withdrawal, began, "First of all, let me say that we have to find a way out of Iraq." But Warner's position on Iraq is unlikely to gladden the hearts of the bring-the-troops-home-now wing of the party, since he comes across as more concerned with electability in November 2008 than with political purity. Warner cautioned the steak-fry Democrats, "If we leave without a plan, there are literally hundreds of thousands, millions of Iraqis, who are trying to bring some level of stability [to their country] who will be the first to be killed."

Moments later a woman in the audience shouted out the question that captured the mood of many anxious Democrats, "How are you going to keep Hillary from running?" Without missing a beat, Warner cracked, "The question was about Iraq." When the laughter died down, he went immediately into robo-candidate mode, giving an answer of such studied blandness that it is almost unquotable, "I have tremendous respect for Senator Clinton. She has done a great job in the Senate. If she decides to run, she will be a formidable, formidable figure in our party. Different people bring different sets of experience -- and my experience is more based in the executive."

When (or, to be precise, if) Hillary Clinton enters the fray, there will be no quiet days in Iowa like my 24 hours with Warner. The former governor traveled in a two-van cavalcade with one reporter (me) in a chase car. This was presidential politics at its most revealing, before every answer is an already practiced sound bite and the candidate is shrouded in the bubble wrap of security and overprotective aides. In contrast, a Clinton race would immediately mean busloads of reporters, more cameras than can be seen during Fashion Week in New York and events boasting all the intimacy of a Rolling Stones concert.

I interviewed Warner in the back seat of one of those vans on the trip into Burlington. A few things surprised me from our 30-minute conversation, more designed to get a sense of him as a potential candidate than to quiz him on the nuances of his still evolving policy positions. Despite his obvious status as a global strategy novice, Warner was astute in discussing his reaction to briefings by the Democratic Party's best and brightest.

"I'm clearly shoring up," he said. "I'm consulting more with foreign policy experts. And I came away with two or three conclusions. One is like the worst of academia, they all don't like each other ... Then there are the Clinton appointees, for whom I have great respect, but they start everything with 'This is the way we did it in '93 or '97' ... The people who can help me [the most] are the ones in the next generation down."

My interpretation, which may veer toward the charitable, is that Warner has learned a valuable lesson about foreign policy: Every Democratic expert -- no matter what the title, no matter how glib the Op-Ed page articles -- comes fully equipped with biases, self-justifications, feuds and personal agendas. That is why a measure of a presidential candidate's judgment is the ability to go beyond briefing-book verities to convey a personal worldview and a distinct decision-making style.

I also was startled by Warner's stubborn insistence that he has not absolutely, unalterably decided to run for president. Hillary aside, most of the leading members of the Class of '08 go out of their way with winks, nods, choice of language and off-the-record comments to signal that their public uncertainty is merely a fig leaf to momentarily mask naked ambition. During our interview, I began a question to Warner by expressing the obvious assumption about his plans for next year.

"Don't assume that," he interjected. Then, looking around at his aides, he added, "I don't want to send shock waves through all the kids in the car." Warner went on to explain, "I only have two speeds -- on and off. What I said to my family and what I said to myself was that I was going to go at this as hard as I can for nine or 10 months and see how things [play out]. And we'll go from there."

Later in the interview, hearing a few more "if" clauses than expected, I asked Warner what was triggering this note of hesitancy about a presidential campaign. The syntax of his response was broken and awkward, which can be a sign that a politician is entering new terrain rather than summoning forth answer No. 319. (Sometimes, though, garbled language merely means that the speaker is George W. Bush.)

"There are two pieces missing," he said. "One is the family piece. I have a wife and three lovely daughters." And then there is ..." Here Warner paused to recast the thought: "Friends of mine who have gone through this journey [running for president] say that you know, but you don't really know until you take the plunge." Then Warner tried yet again: "I have thought long and hard about how this is as close to an irrevocable decision about the rest of your life ... I have plenty of ego and self-confidence. But if you're not a little bit humbled by the contemplation of this journey ..."

As a practiced politician (before being elected governor, he served as state Democratic chairman and embarked on an unsuccessful Senate race), Warner appreciates the importance of timing. There were no sentences without verbs, no aimless clauses, after I asked Warner when he would make his 2008 decision. "I think it is going to be between Election Day and Thanksgiving," he said crisply. Then he added, "It's a gut check. You've got to be able to look everybody in the eye and say that there is no wall you won't run through to get there."

One of the walls that Warner would prefer to bypass rather than break through like a superhero on steroids is the barrier erected by Democrats (in Iowa and elsewhere) who demand doctrinal purity from their candidates. As Warner told a Democratic rally at the local party headquarters in Fort Madison, "If you want somebody who will check every box on traditional Democratic orthodoxy, I'm probably not going to be your guy."

Unlike Joe Lieberman, Warner's views on most issues are well within the Democratic mainstream, though his occasional displays of ideological independence have the potential to irk liberal true believers.

In Des Moines Sept. 18, Warner faulted the 2004 Kerry campaign for denouncing tax cuts for the upper 2 percent of the wealthy while not understanding "that the other 98 percent of Americans still aspired to get to the point in their life where they could qualify for the tax cuts." (After this comment, published in the Des Moines Register, was attacked on Democratic blogs, Warner tried to put it in context in an interview with the Hotline.) That same day in Ottumwa, Warner tartly, if accurately, observed, "It would have been hard for me to take John Kerry to a NASCAR race." The former governor also deviated from traditional environmental gospel when he said several times in Iowa that nuclear power had to be an option "if we're going to be free of our dependence on fossil fuels."

During our interview, Warner described how he had been repeatedly warned that he might not be shrill enough to satisfy the Democratic base: "Warner, you're not angry enough. You're not red meat enough. You don't spend enough time bashing Bush." But Warner claimed that he had discovered (guess what) that Democratic audiences are far more concerned about the future direction of the nation than desperate for new fiery adjectives to describe the misdeeds of the Bush-Cheney years. "People really know that we're at one of those historical inflection points," Warner said. "If we get it right, it's going to take leadership that is not going to further polarize the country."

Both Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 were bedeviled by the widespread impression -- created by the press and amplified by the Republicans -- that they were inauthentic candidates who would recast their beliefs or alter their wardrobes at the whim of campaign consultants. (In defense of political reporters, these assessments were based on a certain level of truth.)

Talking with Warner in his van, my eyes kept zeroing in on his yellow Hermès tie, the sort of French fashion accessory that Kerry jettisoned in 2004 because it was, well, too Old Europe. I asked the self-made former governor if he was planning to give up these ties as well to demonstrate his man-of-the-people values. Warner laughed as he responded, "I only started wearing them two years ago when people said I should clean up my act."

Now Warner has taken that act on the road -- Hermès ties and all. And, at least during these early road trips, he comes across as a plausible candidate for a party desperate for victory and awaiting, with mixed emotions, Hillary Clinton's imperial procession.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton John F. Kerry D-mass.