- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Former Gov. Mark Warner last night opened his Senate campaign in Northern Virginia, returning to a region that in 2001 helped him and fellow Democrats begin to retake control of state leadership and that is seen as likely to carry him again this year.

Mr. Warner emphasized his work with Republicans to close the state’s multibillion-dollar budget shortfall when he was governor as a prescription for Washington.

“When faced with the most serious fiscal challenges in decades, we paid our debts, kept our commitments, and did not simply pass on the problem to the next generation,” Mr. Warner told supporters who packed the Carlyle Club in Alexandria.

Mr. Warner also told crowds yesterday he will be a “radical centrist” in a divided Congress and broke from both major candidates for his party’s presidential nomination on the subject of Iraq.

At a rally of about 350 people at Norfolk’s Nauticus Maritime Museum, with the historical battleship USS Wisconsin behind him, Mr. Warner called for a withdrawal plan from Iraq that was incremental and without a timetable.

Without elaborating, Mr. Warner said the pace of the withdrawal “depends on how things are on the ground.”

He also faulted the Bush administration for failing to force Iraq to take a greater part in its own defense and reconstruction.

“Americans are spending $11 billion to $12 billion a month [in Iraq] while Iraq is sitting on $70 billion worth of oil profits,” Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Warner, 53, already has a double-digit lead over his closest Republican rival, former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, according to polls. And he has raised more than $6 million since last fall, compared with about $700,000 for Mr. Gilmore.

However, political analysts yesterday avoided calling a Warner victory a sure thing, considering how in 2006 Sen. George Allen, a Republican, lost to Democratic challenger Jim Webb, after having a double-digit lead.

“Nobody in Virginia says anything is ‘for sure’ now,” said Bob Holsworth, political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We’ve watched the surest of things collapse. What we can say is, Mark Warner is going to be a formidable opponent.”

Even Warner supporters are concerned, especially after Roanoke Mayor Nelson Harris yesterday introduced Mr. Warner by asking the crowd: “Are you happy to be at a Mark Warner victory party?”

David “Mudcat” Saunders, a consultant who helped Mr. Warner in 2001 connect with rural voters and did the same for Mr. Webb, said such expectations hurt a candidate’s ability to raise money and leave supporters and staff lethargic.

A spokesman for candidate Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, a Gilmore rival, said Mr. Warner’s record as governor “is not as great as he pretends it was.”

“He had a huge tax increase during his tenure. He had a lot of deficit spending,” said Marshall spokesman Bill Kling.

A victory for Democrats in Virginia would help bolster the party’s control of the Senate, which Democrats now hold by a 51-to-49 seat advantage. It also would give the party control of both of Virginia’s Senate seats.

Mr. Warner began his campaign Sunday night in the Southwest Virginia city of Abington — the first stop in his successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign, which helped break the Republican Party’s growing dominance in state politics.

“Southwestern Virginia is a part of Virginia that often doesn’t get a fair shake from Richmond,” Mr. Warner told a crowd of about 240 people. The event also included the Wires and Wood bluegrass band, which Mr. Warner used to woo Republican voters in the 1990s.

Despite Republican criticism of his tax increase, Mr. Warner has been widely praised for his efforts as governor, from 2002 through 2006, for fixing the state’s long-term budget crisis. He was considered a likely presidential candidate, but he passed on the opportunity before the campaigns began in earnest.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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