Thursday, December 8, 2005

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has not officially declared he is running for the presidency — but he is raising money like he is.

The Democratic governor hosted a gala in Northern Virginia on Tuesday to kick off his Forward Together Political Action Committee, raising $2.5 million from nearly 1,000 attendees who think he can take the White House back for the party.

“This nation can and must do better,” he told the crowd.

His high-dollar evening even prompted a liberal blogger to say the governor has the ability to “rake in the bucks” to keep up with better-known Democratic names, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

“Forget Hillary,” wrote blogger Daily Kos, whose real name is Marcos Zuniga. “Warner will be the candidate to beat.”

The governor’s event — which had a $5,000 maximum donation — set a state record, beating the $2.1 million President Bush raised in Virginia for failed Republican gubernatorial nominee Jerry W. Kilgore over the summer.

“Wow,” said state Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat and Warner cheerleader. “Money is an accurate indicator of future success, and Mark did extremely well last night.”

The term-limited Mr. Warner, who leaves office Jan. 14 when his Democratic successor, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, is inaugurated, also raised $1 million at his 50th birthday party last year. He raised about $1.5 million at two fundraisers for Mr. Kaine during the campaign.

“I don’t know of a single person who has ever made one penny betting against Mark Warner,” Mr. Kaine said.

Mr. Warner, a former telecommunications mogul estimated to be worth more than $200 million, cannot use the money raised for the Forward Together PAC to finance a presidential run. But the millions can be used in political races across the country — raising the governor’s profile in places where he may not be well known now.

The governor said his PAC will find and fund candidates who will “shake things up” and “see a little bit farther down the road.” Mr. Warner also can use the cash to pay for travel to key presidential primary states — he was in South Carolina yesterday and will travel to Florida over the weekend. He already has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire.

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin told the Associated Press yesterday that Mr. Warner “is quickly becoming a rock star on the national level.”

Mr. Warner, who championed a $1.38 billion tax increase in 2004, has been hailed by party activists in New Hampshire as a fiscal conservative and savvy businessman.

The leadership PAC has not been required to file a report yet with the Federal Election Commission, but Tuesday’s gala puts Mr. Warner, who raised funds for the Democratic National Committee in his 20s, among the party’s heavyweight fundraisers.

Mrs. Clinton has a $13.8 million Senate re-election campaign war chest — $5.3 million during the third quarter this year. All of it could be rolled over into a presidential campaign, should she decide to run.

A staffer in her campaign office would not disclose the fundraising total to date, but said she has $13.8 million cash on hand in her official re-election account. Her staff also refused to disclose the largest single-event total for the senator, who is known for her fundraising prowess.

Mr. Warner must maintain that pace to compete, a former Virginia Republican operative said yesterday.

“For a single event in Northern Virginia, it’s impressive. But to be considered national presidential timber, he’s going to need a lot more of them and considerably larger,” the operative said. “And he’s got to be able to do that on both coasts.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, has a leadership PAC that raised $1.1 million through June 30, according to the Hotline On Call, which tracks such data.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, has a volunteer PAC that had raised $1.1 million through June.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican who also is expected to seek the presidency, raised $1.2 million during the third quarter.

Failed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, raised more than $3 million in the third quarter.

Tuesday’s event drew mostly Virginians, but Mr. Warner recognized a lot of his old friends from Harvard Law School in the crowd.

“This is as good as it gets, next to a funeral,” he said.

Donors to the gala included the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the American Federation of Teachers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

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