- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

RICHMOND As the sun set on the first full Friday of autumn, Democrat Mark R. Warner strolled the midway of the Virginia State Fair, his final speech of the day done, his coat off, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened.
He was relaxed and joking, having just won a huge ovation from a crowd that normally leans Republican: farmers and agribusiness leaders and lobbyists. The huge, toothy smile that distinguishes him never faded as he drank in the simple pleasures, sweet smells and merry noises of children and carnival rides.
Then, he spotted a booth that featured life-size wooden cartoon cutouts with empty ovals for faces and, for an instant, the 46-year-old man who would be governor was just another child at the fair. Briefly away from the television cameras and newspaper photographers, Mr. Warner inserted his beaming face into the cowboy cutout as children frolicked beside him and parents clicked off snapshots.
"How's this, Mo?" Mr. Warner asked his press secretary, Mo Elleithee.
The scene is a rare but essential glimpse into a man whose nervous energy, willingness to dare and steely ambition made him a multimillionaire before he was 40 and now puts him in a position to possibly win Virginia's highest elected office.
It's not Mr. Warner's first race. That came in 1996 when he challenged Virginia's popular Republican senior statesman, Sen. John W. Warner, for re-election to a fourth term. In that race, Mr. Warner ran as much more a traditional Democrat, taking positions slightly left of those he embraces now on some issues, including gun control. He sought to tie the senator to his party's right wing, to votes against Medicaid and education, and to support for tax cuts proposed by then-presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Mr. Warner spent $10 million of the fortune he amassed early in the cellular-telephone industry in the campaign and finished 5 percentage points behind Mr. Warner. Now worth an estimated $200 million, he's wiser from the lessons of '96 and, longtime friends say, running for the job he's always wanted.
"I don't know that he wants to be anything other than governor. That's what he always talked about," said longtime friend James B. Murray Jr. of Charlottesville, an early business partner of Mr. Warner's.
This year's race got started about three years ago, with Mr. Warner crisscrossing the state, seeding start-up high-tech businesses with money from a venture-capital fund he controls. The move was especially popular in rural areas that watched suburban Virginia flourish in the 1990s while tobacco farming suffered and textile and furniture industries withered.
Before he even formally declared his candidacy, Mr. Warner had put together a staff and a network of allies with orders to take back turf that had once been solidly Democratic.
He campaigns comfortably among people who resoundingly rejected Al Gore's presidential bid last year and President Clinton before that. Sometimes, he takes along a bluegrass band to help him break the ice.
In August, for example, Mr. Warner mingled easily with Democrats and some Republicans at a fund-raising barbecue in Lynchburg, darting from one cluster of people to another, sweating through his white shirt as he shook hands.
"Mark Warner came down here and he paid attention to people, folks in the hills and folks in the Southside. People weren't used to that. They appreciate it," said David "Mudcat" Saunders of Roanoke, a businessman and political dabbler who has helped guide Mr. Warner's rural strategy.
He moves and speaks quickly, in staccato bursts, often in the language of business. He affects a sense of businesslike urgency that some observers describe as "caffeinated."
"He has a business mentality and a business perspective that, as a businessman myself, I can relate to," said Walker Sydnor, a Lynchburg insurance executive.
His style is always animated and often intimate, standing close, listening intently, locking his eyes briefly onto yours, sometimes draping his long arms around shoulders. He laughs easily and has extraordinary recall for names, faces and details about people's lives.
Phil Ripley, owner of Lynchburg's Federal Crest Inn bed-and-breakfast, knows what it's like. Mr. Warner won Ripley and his wife, Ann, both "good Republicans," over as he checked in at their 92-year-old home after the barbecue.
"This is the best Democrat that they've run in some time," Mr. Ripley said.

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