Keep an eye on Virginia politics

McClatchy Newspapers

Virginia wields neither the size nor the swing-state reputation of a Florida or Ohio. It can’t flaunt an early primary election like New Hampshire.

But the hard-to-label, conservative-leaning state that in 1989 made history by electing the nation’s first black governor is again becoming a state to watch, in this year’s midterm elections and the 2008 presidential contest.

Strongly Republican through most of the 1990s, Virginia has since elected two Democratic governors in a row, although its voters have continued to favor Republican state and federal lawmakers and voted twice for President Bush.

And two increasingly mentioned presidential possibilities are Virginians, former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, and Sen. George Allen, a Republican who also is a former governor of the state.

When Warner decided not to challenge Allen this year for his Senate seat, it looked as if Allen might have an easy re-election that could allow him to turn more attention to exploring a presidential run. But last month, James Webb, 60, a bestselling author, decorated Marine and one-time Navy secretary for President Reagan formally launched a campaign as a Democrat to challenge Allen.

"The one thing I’ve been hearing from a lot of friends who are sitting senators is that the members of the Senate are watching this race," said Webb, who switched from Democrat to Republican after the Vietnam War but now says the Democratic Party better represents his values.

"If I win, then you will have seen a lot of people coming back to the Democratic Party who left it when Reagan came," he said. "The Reagan Democrats will be coming back, and that will have implications for ’08."

Webb faces a well-connected Democrat in the primary election, Harris Miller, a former information technology lobbyist also from northern Virginia. It’s unclear which of them will prevail. But political scientists say Webb’s credibility on national security could make him a greater threat to Allen, all things being equal, especially if voters are inclined to punish incumbents perceived as close to Bush.

Democrats would need to win six seats across the country to retake the Senate majority from Republicans.

Nationally, polls show voters tend to trust Republicans more on national security issues but have turned against the Iraq war and cooled to Bush.

Allen, who unseated Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb in 2000 with 52 percent of the vote, has voted in keeping with most of the president’s economic, social and military priorities. Webb opposed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, warning it would distract the United States from going after al Qaeda.

There’s a nexus between the results in this year’s Senate race and Allen’s prospects for 2008, said Glen Sussman, chairman of the political science department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

"He obviously needs to win" re-election to be taken seriously as presidential material, Sussman said. "The second step is to what extent does he win? If he wins re-election, but it’s close, that’s not going to do him any favors, either. If he just wins by two or three points, that’s going to show there’s a lot of division in the state."

Looking ahead to 2008, Allen and Warner separately have been traveling the country to key states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, giving speeches and raising money for politicians whose support they’d like down the line.

Virginia, now the 12th largest state in the country with about 7.5 million residents, was a power center in the early years of the nation. It was the birthplace to eight presidents _ more than any other state can claim _ a trend that ended with World World War I-era President Woodrow Wilson.

Neither Warner nor Allen is a Virginia native. Warner was born in Indiana and Allen in California. Still, both made their political names in Virginia.

Allen, a former lawyer and the son of legendary former Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen, is colorful and an adopted Southerner known for his football analogies, boots and chewing tobacco.

Warner comes across more straight-laced and city-fied, an investor who made money in telecommunications.

Both men are telegenic, charismatic and in their early 50s.

Allen’s strength has been his popularity among conservatives who can make or break presidential hopefuls in GOP primary elections.

Warner’s strength is considered his crossover appeal in a general election; he has been popular with independents, finding support in rural areas of Virginia that might have been off limits to other Democrats, and he was able to move a tax increase of more than $1 billion through his state’s GOP-led legislature in 2004, which he argued was needed to save the state’s high bond rating.

Both have had leadership roles in their parties _ Allen as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the last election cycle, and Warner as past chairman of the National Governors Association.

Warner, no longer in office, can focus unapologetically on 2008. He now is serving as honorary chairman of a political action committee called Forward Together, which gives him an early fund-raising source to explore a presidential bid.

Allen faces a more delicate dance, in building a profile nationally while showing voters in his home state he is more focused on being their senator, and that he would remain focused if they re-elect him.

This week, with Congress in recess, Allen participated in several town hall events and meetings with business leaders across Virginia. Then he was off to a fund-raiser in Texas, then to South Carolina for events supporting a GOP congressional candidate and Sen. Jim DeMint. Then up to New Hampshire, to speak to the state Republican Party. Finally, his weekend schedule had him dashing back to serve as grand marshal at a NASCAR race at the Virginia-Tennessee line.

Allen’s chief of staff, Dick Wadhams, a campaign consultant best known for engineering the 2004 defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to Republican John Thune, said Allen has got "a proven record of performance for the people of Virginia."

"They know him as their governor, and for the last five years as their senator," Wadhams said. "He’s a common-sense Jeffersonian conservative, and he thinks that approach is accepted by the vast majority of Virginians."

Nevertheless, Wadhams said, "I could see it becoming a very competitive race."