- - Monday, July 28, 2014

“Governor Warner wouldn’t recognize Senator Warner today.” That was the memorable line from the weekend debate between Virginia’s Sen. Mark R. Warner, the Democratic senior senator, and his challenger in November, Ed Gillespie.

There’s no denying Mr. Warner’s sharp leftward lurch during his first term in the U.S. Senate. As the governor from 2002 to 2006, Mr. Warner compiled a centrist record, with tax-and-spend proclivities kept in check by the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly, much in the way President Clinton’s enthusiasms were circumscribed by a Republican Congress two decades ago.

When Mr. Warner moved north of the Potomac five years ago he threw away his mask of moderation. He has voted in tandem with President Obama’s agenda 97 percent of the time, which Mr. Warner doesn’t dispute because he can’t. When asked, Mr. Warner has rubber-stamped every single judge or appointee, good or bad, nominated by Mr. Obama.

During the debate, Mr. Warner tried to make that hyperliberal voting record disappear with prestidigitation. Aiming to burnish his self-styled credentials as a “radical centrist,” he insisted that he has “taken arrows” from both left and right. Any arrows fired from the left were tipped with harmless rubber suction cups. We haven’t seen those since kids were allowed to play cowpersons and Native Americans (which, don’t tell anyone, we called “cowboys and Indians”).

Parrying the attack, which clearly hit him where he knows he’s most vulnerable, Mr. Warner said of Mr. Gillespie: “The last thing Washington needs is another partisan warrior.” Those are interesting words from someone with a voting record more appropriate to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts than the Commonwealth of Virginia. Mr. Warner’s amiable demeanor is considerably warmer than that of his fire-breathing Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, but there’s not much difference between them where it matters, in terms of big-government liberalism.

It doesn’t require campaign consultants in tasseled loafers from K Street to tell Mr. Gillespie that his best hope for retiring Mr. Warner lies in defining him, as he did Saturday, as “a blank check” for Mr. Obama’s out-of-control spending. Mr. Warner says the national debt, which he and Mr. Obama have increased by $7 trillion, keeps him awake at night. But not so much that he can’t roll over and go back to sleep counting sheep by the trillions.

A poll by Roanoke College released last week found Mr. Warner with a comfortable lead over Mr. Gillespie among registered voters, 47 percent to 22 percent. At this early stage of the campaign that’s due more to Mr. Warner’s far greater name recognition than to his job approval. This is where Mr. Gillespie correctly sees his opening.

Another poll, this one by Quinnipiac College, found a plurality of respondents think Mr. Obama is the worst president since World War II, and a CNN-ORC International poll released Sunday suggests that if the 2012 election were reprised today Mitt Romney would defeat Mr. Obama 53 percent to 44 percent. When voters see how joined at the hip the senator and the president are, the senator might become a private citizen, after all.