WASHINGTON - A former Virginia governor pondering a bid for the presidency in 2008, Mark Warner, is assembling a team of formal and informal advisers with ties to the Clinton administration, raising the potential for friction with Senator Clinton, who is also mulling a race for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Warner is scheduled to travel to New Hampshire tomorrow in his first visit to that politically pivotal state since he was forced out of the Virginia governor's office last month by term limits.
Mr. Warner, 51, has built allegiances with a variety of political, policy, speechwriting, and fund-raising figures once in President Clinton's orbit. Mr. Warner hired a former deputy chief of staff to Vice President Gore, Monica Dixon, to run his new political committee, called Forward Together. The former Virginia governor also has retained a speechwriting team of ex-Clinton staffers and has been getting foreign policy briefings from an array of Clinton White House alumni.
One of the biggest political heavyweights in Mr. Warner's corner is a former Democratic National Committee chairman, Charles Manatt. "Mark Warner looks awful good to me," Mr. Manatt told The New York Sun yesterday. "He's just the right age and at the right stage for the development of a whale of campaign."
One of Mr. Warner's first jobs in Washington was as a deputy to Mr. Manatt, who was then doing finance work for the party. However, Mr. Manatt, now an attorney and lobbyist in the capital, will also feel some strain if both Mr. Warner and Mrs. Clinton make bids for the White House. Mr. Manatt was a co-chair of the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1992 and was later appointed by Mr. Clinton as ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
"I have great devotion, as you can understand, to the Clintons," Mr. Manatt said. He is actively fundraising for the political action committee that will fund Mr. Warner's pre-candidacy travels, but declined to handicap the two possible presidential candidates for this story. "At this juncture, it doesn't have to be an either-or. In a year, you have the chance to make your choices," he said.
The Warner operation has already managed to slip a few other tentacles into the Clinton camp. Mr. Warner's speeches are being drafted by a Washington firm whose founders, Jeffrey Shesol, Thomas Rosshirt, and Paul Orzulak, are former writers for Mr. Clinton. According to a recent Federal Election Commission filing, the private speechwriting shop, West Wing Writers, was paid $15,000 late last year by Mr. Warner's committee. The ex-Clinton aides running the firm did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
Mr. Warner's political committee, which raised $3.3 million in its first six months of operation, took in more than $14,000 from lawyers at the Clintons' Washington law firm, Williams & Connolly. The Clintons' personal attorney, David Kendall, was not among the Warner donors, but a top lawyer on the team that defended Mr. Clinton from impeachment, Gregory Craig, gave $1,000 to the former Virginia governor.
One of Mr. Warner's most active backers on the West Coast is the former director of the Clinton administration's "Reinventing Government" initiative, Morley Winograd. "I'm very supportive of him and think he's going to do a great job as a candidate and hopefully as president," Mr. Winograd said in an interview. He noted that, under Mr. Warner, Virginia was named as the best governed state in the nation by Governing Magazine. "He took on a government that had fiscal challenges as well as performance challenges and did a lot to make it run better," Mr. Winograd said.
Mr. Winograd, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, is one of few Warner allies with ties to the Clinton administration willing to speak publicly about Mrs. Clinton's potential liabilities in 2008. "Unfortunately, Hillary brings to the race the baggage of her husband's performance, both good and bad. The fact that she was such an important player in those eight years makes it impossible for her to divorce herself from it," Mr. Winograd said. "I just don't see how that adds up to a general election win. Obviously, she's a very formidable primary candidate."
Mr. Winograd said Mr. Warner's popularity in Republican-leaning Virginia should boost his presidential bid. "His ability to get votes in an arena that's not necessarily hospitable to Democrats is important. The fact that he could add Virginia into electoral play is very important," said Mr. Winograd, who worked for Vice President Gore, said.
The presence of former Clinton aides and allies in Mr. Warner's camp is to some extent unsurprising. During Mr. Clinton's eight years in office, his administration employed thousands of Democratic lawyers, political operatives, and policy experts in every field.
Asked about the former Clinton administration officials who have allied themselves in one way or another with Mr. Warner, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, Howard Wolfson, described them as "good people."
"We wish them well," he added.
Mr. Warner was born in Indiana and raised in Connecticut. He graduated from George Washington University in 1977 and Harvard Law School in 1980. After a few years as a political staffer, he embarked on a business career. Mr. Warner was an early buyer of cellular telephone licenses and eventually co-founded a venture capital firm, Columbia Capital Corp. and a telecommunications firm, Nextel. By the mid-1990s, his personal fortune stood at $100 million or more. It is believed to have grown substantially since.
In 1996, he mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Senator John Warner, a Republican of Virginia. In 2001, Mark Warner won a four-year term as governor, defeating the Republican attorney general, Mark Earley, by nearly 100,000 votes.
Mr. Warner, who is seen as a moderate on social issues, has been lionized in Democratic circles for emerging from his term with an approval rating of about 72%, despite having pushed through a tax increase in 2004. His popularity is credited with helping another Democrat, Timothy Kaine, win election to the governor's job last fall.
While some have suggested that Mr. Warner's single four-year stint as governor has left him light on experience in elected office, the only glaring gap in his resume is his lack of national security and foreign policy expertise. He has wasted little time polishing up that aspect of his resume, heading to Britain and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland within days of quitting his office in Richmond.
"Obviously, he's going to be spending a whole lot of time in the international arena as far as learning and studying defense and foreign policy issues," Mr. Manatt said.
Before jetting off to Europe, Mr. Warner was tutored by a variety of foreign policy experts, many of whom once worked for Mr. Clinton. A spokeswoman for Mr. Warner declined to identify those involved in the briefings. However, sources told The New York Sun that the visitors included two men who advised Mr. Clinton and President Bush on counter-terrorism issues, Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, as well as two former National Security Council staffers, Antony Blinken and Ivo Daalder, and a former State Department official, Lee Feinstein. "I heard he might not be ready for the big job, particularly in foreign policy, and I came away very impressed," Mr. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said after meeting the former Virginia governor for the first time. "I've talked to many people who thought they should be president. I came away thinking this guy really has his head on his shoulders."
In an interview, Mr. Daalder said that he and several other experts talked with Mr. Warner for about three hours last month, spending about 45 minutes on the issue of whether Muslims have been fully integrated in Europe.
Even in the post-September 11, 2001 era, the notion that a presidential candidate must have had hands-on experience in foreign policy is overblown, Mr. Daalder insisted. "First and foremost, it's a question of having a head on your shoulders. We've had enough people who got shot up in Vietnam or got on a foreign policy committee and think they've got foreign policy experience," he said.
Mr. Daalder said Mr. Warner did not seek an exclusive commitment from the experts, some of whom have ties to other possible candidates. "His big problem is that the Democratic foreign policy establishment is to a large extent a Bill Clinton foreign policy establishment and is therefore unlikely to abandon the Hillary Clinton base for a Mark Warner," Mr. Daalder observed.
While other contenders are tied down in the Senate or in various statehouses, Mr. Warner plans to spend the next couple of years barnstorming across the country, honing his political skills and lining up possible donors for a presidential bid. Even on Mrs. Clinton's home turf of New York, he's already won a few converts.
"He seems to approach problems with a very systematic, thoughtful, businesslike kind of approach," a Manhattan investment banker who went to college in Virginia, Patricia Caldwell, said in an interview. She said Mr.Warner recently visited Manhattan law firms and a large hedge fund, Cerberus Capital Management. "He's making the rounds in New York," she said.
Asked about Mrs. Clinton's chances, Ms. Caldwell said, "She polarizes people. I don't know why. People seem to dislike her without any reason...I think that problem is something she's going to have to address."
Ms. Caldwell said she thinks Democrats would do better nationally with Mr. Warner. "He's a Democrat flourishing in a Republican state. Personally, that sounds like someone who's electable," she said.