Watching former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner tour the glass and concrete Pappajohn Higher Education Center in Des Moines gives me flashbacks to 2000, when I followed then-Gov. George W. Bush to countless identical education-related events. Here I am, six years later, walking a few paces behind another businessman turned red-state governor. Warner, too, is focusing on education, promising to change his party by broadening its appeal beyond its traditional base and, most significantly, running for president.
But then Warner stops his tour guide and short-circuits my flashback. I expect the perfunctory question or two that Bush asks at such events. Bush uses these appearances not to gain information but to create a scenic backdrop for his programmed message of the day. But Warner starts quizzing his host about advance-placement testing, articulation agreements for credit sharing, and how to educate different student populations. What’s he doing? Shouldn’t someone step in and save him before he makes a flub?
Later, speaking to Democratic activists, Warner makes fun of his early business failures. (Business failure is another trait he shares with the president.) Warner can joke because he reversed the curse, creating more than 60 new businesses as a venture capitalist after 20 years at Nextel, the cell phone company he co-founded. When a ring tone interrupts Warner at one stop, he doesn’t glare at the offender, as Bush famously does. He offers instead his favorite line: “Please leave it on. When I hear that, I hear ka-ching.”
People still laugh at that joke in Iowa, which means Warner has a lot more campaigning to do. To win or even do well in the nominating caucuses a year and a half from now, Warner needs to become so familiar that the joke makes Iowans roll their eyes. Funny is good. But mind-numbingly familiar is even better. That’s how you win. Iowans want repetition. Appealing, uncynical, and inviting, caucus attendees boast about how much candidates have to woo them before they make their decision.
Warner doesn’t mind. He’s putting in the time. He hasn’t declared that he’s running for president, and as I ride in his minivan toward Dubuque on one leg of his two-day trip, he keeps saying “if I take this journey.” But he already looks like a guy who is well into the march. The few staffers who travel with him are low-key but carry tidy binders with colored tabs, present him with a bottle of fresh water when the one he’s drinking is empty, and plan his movements from union hall to fund-raiser with precision. His Forward Together PAC includes veterans from his gubernatorial staff and the Gore campaign. It’s deeply engaged with blogger outreach, fund raising and courting influential party activists. Last week the PAC hired Jim Jordan, John Kerry’s first 2004 presidential campaign manager.
On the stump, Warner is energetic but not jumpy, and those teeth the New York Times magazine made look like a homeland security threat are just fine in real life. In the small groups of 50 to 70 people he meets in Iowa, he practices all of the politician’s arts gracefully, easily hand-clasping and back-patting. When he walks into a room, he starts collecting conversations and names. Ten minutes later when he gives his stump speech, he addresses those he’s just met and tailors little bits of his standard talk to the chats he’s just had with them.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, or any of his other likely primary challengers—almost all of whom are from the senatorial class—Warner can talk about specific recent accomplishments: improving test scores, balancing the budget, and reforming the tax code. His central theme, “ensuring a fair shot for everyone,” lifts from being a mere standard progressive platitude when he talks about how he wants to guarantee that others have a chance to fail and succeed as he did. Since he made his fortune recognizing before others did that cell phones would be popular, he’s also smart to frame his campaign as “not so much about red versus blue but the future versus the past.”
But Warner’s key point is political—and borrowed straight from Bill Clinton. Democrats won’t take back the White House unless they appeal to a broader constituency. “Democrats started to be more advocates for certain groups than for America writ large,” he tells me. As a very popular Democrat in a state that voted twice for George Bush, he has the record and skills to reach out to independents and moderate Republicans. It’s an appealing pitch made all the more so when Warner speaks the truth about his own party. “People are not going to take a look at a Democratic Party that is us against them, class warfare, ‘70s populism.”
But there are challenges to his appealing realism. It may piss off the liberal activists who participate in primaries and caucuses. When Warner says Democrats “need to get past being angry,” liberal activists may think he’s advocating a Republican-lite approach or something closer to the dreaded moderation of the Democratic Leadership Council. They’re going to require loyalty tests from him on issues such as abortion and gun control. They’re going to want to know whether he would have voted to confirm Samuel Alito or supports the Murtha withdrawal plan from Iraq, questions they will use to measure him against the “orthodoxy” Warner finds so dangerous. He has largely been able to skirt the contentious issues so far, though in the latest loyalty test he says he is supporting Joe Lieberman in his Democratic primary race against Ned Lamont.
For those not fixated on intramural party politics, the biggest question about Warner is his lack of national-security experience. For that, he relies on an approach not unlike Bush’s in 2000. He argues that his training as an executive gives him the tools to make the tough decisions required from the commander in chief. Warner, who has had more business experience and success than Bush did, updates his pitch for the times. “I am interested in learning. I am willing to admit a mistake, and I have a tremendous curiosity,” he says to an audience at Happy’s Place in Dubuque, pausing for effect. “That already makes me different than this president.”