Mark Warner: One of the only Democrats who could take on Hillary Clinton and pull off a win

The Monday Interview: Democrat US Presidential hopeful
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The Independent Online

Like the gentle shift of the seasons, the campaign for the US presidency never really stops or starts. Even in the moments when a victor is being hailed every frantic fourth November, the plotting and planning has already begun for the next race. Sometimes the plotting can start two full cycles away.

It is still a full two-and-half years from the next election and already some things are falling into place. One such fixture is the acceptance that Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, will almost certainly run for the office once occupied by her husband. A second is that it will be terribly tough for any other Democrat to challenge her.

And yet there is a growing sense among some Democrats - both within the party establishment and among grassroots supporters - that to win in 2008 the party must campaign in a very different fashion to how it behaved in 2004. Rather than focus on the small number of "swing states" it must appeal to voters across the nation. Many believe that to do that the Democrats need a candidate from the South and among the names increasingly being talked about is that of Mark Warner.

Warner, who recently completed his term as Governor of Virginia and is currently considering whether to launch a bid for the presidency, certainly supports such a 50-state approach. "I think there is a there is a growing consensus from [party chairman] Howard Dean on down, that we need to have a Democratic party that is going to be competitive in every state," he says.

"Simply having a national campaign that looks at 16 states and then hopes everything breaks for either winning in Ohio or Florida ... that makes no sense to me. And if you were elected president under that scenario he or she could not govern. In many states, moderate Republicans and independents are looking for a fresh alternative but not an alternative that does not present a new face of the Democratic Party."

Warner's success in winning the Virginia governor's race in 2001, his leaving of that office with an approval rating of 75 per cent and his ability to help ensure his Democratic deputy succeeded him in the face of a ferocious Republican challenge, are no small feats. With an eye to the success of fellow southern governors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton - and the failure of East Coast John Kerry and Minnesotan Walter Mondale - some strategists believe Warner could be a much less divisive candidate than Mrs Clinton in a general election, and potentially win states that Democrats have traditionally barely bothered to contest.

Again, Warner sees potential for turning around many of those "red states" ignored by the party strategists. "There is a host of states where the national campaign [in 2004] ... for whatever reason, did not mount a viable challenge. And that does - not just the Democratic Party - but it does the country a disservice, because I believe that the sensible centre of the United States is wide open for someone to grab at this point and there is an incredible opportunity for the Democratic Party to grab [it]. But we are not going to grab it unless we put out ideas that are going to be competitive in these states."

Warner, 51, married with three daughters, readily admits he does not "tick every box in Democratic orthodoxy". He started his political career in the early 1980s when he worked on Capitol Hill for a Democratic senator and then left politics and used his knowledge of federal telecommunications policies to build a career in the mobile phone industry. He was a founder of the company Nextel, which has helped him amass a personal fortune of $200m (£115m).

Politically, Warner is on the right of his party. He supports abortion rights but signed legislation requiring a minor's parents are notified before such an operation could be carried out. He has courted the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA) though he supports current gun controls and he supports the death penalty. He might be the typical swing voter.

But what would he offer to those typical swing voters to make them vote for him? What message does Warner offer, what broader vision does he have to ignite and inspire? Can he light a fire beneath the grassroots activists in the way Howard Dean was able to? Like many businessmen-turned-politicians and like many soldiers-turned-politicians, Warner has, so far, essentially positioned himself as an effective operator, a man of measurable results rather than as someone with an overwhelming policy message. He has not focused on the issue of economic opportunity, as has last election's vice-presidential candidate John Edwards - another likely candidate for 2008. Nor has he focussed on the social justice issues like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who could be a candidate on the left.

Warner can come across as the chief executive of a large company, sincere and friendly but sometimes a little wooden. "Our focus in Virginia [was] on results," he says. "How do you get a result, how do you make sure you measure results? How do you make sure you spend a preponderance of your time on [dealing with] how to educate your kids, how do we provide safe communities, how do we make sure there's basic health care for kids? I spent less time in my tenure on the social hot button issues and more on what I'd call the core functions of government." He adds: "I also believe that what I'm trying to do and this is a little audacious but I'm trying to say if we can turn the whole political debate away from liberal v conservative or left versus right to future versus the past. I think the Democratic Party has always been best when it is future focussed." It is impossible to talk about Warner without putting him in the context of Mrs Clinton's likely run - a campaign for which she has assiduously prepared politically. Everything she does, it appears, is done with an eye to the focus groups, an eye to how each move will be perceived.

And yet for all her manoeuvering - and perhaps because of it - the Senator from New York remains a divisive figure within the party, as well as across the country. Some have speculated that Warner could run as the "anti-Hillary candidate". But would this be enough?

Warner chooses his words very carefully when talking about Clinton, though much of what he says - his talk of the need for a break with the past, the talk of a need to be able to speak to all Americans rather than just traditional Democratic supporters - can be decoded as an assessment of her weaknesses as candidate.Does he think it is vital the party selects a southerner like him rather than a north-easterner such as Mrs Clinton? "Umm. I'll let you draw your own conclusion," he says. "But you know, you're not the only person who has mentioned the fact that we had a pretty good run with southern candidates."

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