RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Sometime before Thanksgiving, former Gov. Mark Warner intends to announce whether he wants to be future Gov. Mark Warner.
Don't look for the popular, centrist Democratic senator to leave Washington's Capitol Hill for Richmond's Capitol Square.
In an Associated Press interview Friday, Virginia's 69th governor stopped short of rejecting a gubernatorial run. It's a prospect that has beckoned him on an emotional level since he tearfully relinquished the office in January 2006 to his Democratic successor, Tim Kaine.
"We all know the stories of my fingernails being scraped along the floor as they dragged me out," Warner said.
But, tellingly, Warner spoke with unequivocating conviction of becoming a bipartisan bridge-builder in Congress's dramatic "fiscal cliff" standoff and budget battles beyond. He also acknowledged daunting hurdles to reprising his charmed term as governor.
"You can't just put the band back together. Circumstances in Richmond and other things have changed," he said. "My top priority remains whatever I can do to get this debt-and-deficit deal because if we don't get this fixed, not only is that going to have enormous national financial implications, but it's going to have huge implications for the commonwealth."
Privately, Democrats close to Warner are confident that he will remain in the Senate despite his chilly relationship with Harry Reid, the liberal leader of the Senate's Democratic majority.
Still, Warner has been under pressure to consider a gubernatorial encore, particularly from home state Democrats fearful that another Republican — Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling or, worse, Attorney General and tea party hero Ken Cuccinelli — will succeed Bob McDonnell, who is barred by Virginia's constitution from seeking re-election.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week indicated Warner would win 52 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Cuccinelli, and 53 percent of the vote over Bolling's 33 percent. But if the Democratic nominee is Terry McAuliffe, who didn't await Warner's decision before diving into the governor's race three days after the presidential election, it's anybody's game, the poll said.
At 58 percent, Warner's favorability rating in the poll about doubled those of either Republican and more than tripled that of McAuliffe's 17 percent. Quinnipiac's survey of 1,469 registered voters from Nov. 8-12 had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
Democrats fret because McAuliffe flopped in his candidate debut four years ago. He and his bitter intraparty rival, Brian Moran, lost the 2009 Democratic primary by lopsided margins to eventual nominee R. Creigh Deeds, whom McDonnell trounced in the fall election.
But McAuliffe has formidable friends. He is a master fundraiser and a close friend, adviser and confidante to both former President Bill Clinton and to Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful 2008 nomination battle with Barack Obama.
Warner savored his four years in the Executive Mansion in a role more suited than the sedate Senate to both his caffeinated style and his professional portfolio. He thrived on the adrenaline of handling crises such as Hurricane Isabel and the sniper shootings that terrified Virginia in the fall of 2002 and left 10 dead in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. He was chauffeured in official motorcades replete with police escorts, had National Guard helicopters whisk him to the scenes of emergencies, was introduced formally as "His Excellency," and held the rapt attention of Virginia's press corps.
It took Warner two of his four years to learn that, unlike corporate boardrooms where win-win business deals leave everyone prosperous and smiling, Richmond's partisan political dealings seldom reward compromise. In his third year, however, Warner leveraged public concern over the state budget's structural deficiencies aggravated by a recession to rally Virginia's local governments, educators and the business community to win over 17 House Republican moderates and isolate House GOP conservatives, then enact $1.4 billion in new taxes.
The state's budget, buoyed by a rapid economic recovery, was soon posting fat surpluses. To the abiding dismay of Republicans, he left office with the highest job-approval ratings Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. had ever recorded for an outgoing Virginia governor.
"The Republicans in the legislature won't let that happen again," said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, who worked on Warner's 2001 gubernatorial race. The GOP now holds a two-thirds House majority far more conservative than the one Warner seduced in 2004.
On Friday, when Warner spoke of the future, it was of his hope to return elements of his signature policy victory in Virginia's fiscal battle nine years ago to today's fiscal fight in Washington.
"In the back of my mind, you know what I've always thought? The coalition we built in 2004 in Virginia — it was business and educators and hospitals and universities where ... at the end of the day you were either for Virginia or you weren't — someone needs to replicate that at the national level," he said.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.