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Mark Warner Rides On Virginia Success

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is riding the crest of a pretty gnarly political wave right now.

He helped his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, win the election to succeed him last November (in Virginia, governors can only serve one four-year term). Now Warner is meeting with curious and sometimes enthusiastic audiences of the Democratic Party faithful in places like New Hampshire and Iowa -- people who are eager to see the man who has shown that Democrats can win in red, Southern states.

And he's being touted by some as the anti-Hillary -- the strongest alternative to perceived front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Warner was elected governor of Virginia in 2001. It was his second try at elective office. He lost a challenge to Republican Sen. John Warner (no relation) in 1996. Raised in Indiana and Connecticut, he went to George Washington University and Harvard Law School. Mark Warner came to politics after making a fortune as an early investor in the cell phone industry. And he's been willing to use that fortune to help finance his political career.

Warner's successful gubernatorial campaign focused on attracting support not only from traditional Democratic strongholds, such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia along with Richmond and Hampton Roads, but also from rural voters. Long part of the Republican base, these voters were open to Warner's pro-growth, no-tax-increase economic message. His campaign sponsored a NASCAR race truck, and neutralized the issue of gun control (a traditional vulnerability for Democrats among rural voters) by saying that no further gun laws were necessary.

Once in office, Warner worked to keep his promises, bringing economic development to isolated southwest Virginia, and introducing broadband access to the area. But a decline in state revenues led to Warner reneging on his no-new-taxes pledge. The Republican legislature provided him some cover, however, ultimately approving a tax package larger than the one Warner had proposed.

He left office with skyrocketing popularity in the polls.

Now Warner faces a new challenge, convincing Democrats (including donors) that he can overcome a lack of foreign-policy credentials and rise above his local appeal to become a serious national candidate. He's also mindful of the fact that the last three Democratic presidents -- Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson -- all hailed from the South.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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