Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's decision not to run for president is a telling statement about the Democratic Party, the strength of its liberal wing, and the inevitability of Hillary Clinton's presidential nomination in 2008.

Warner, who has been touring the country engaging in the ritualistic work for party candidates during this congressional election in preparation for a presidential run, was thought the best hope for party moderates.

The "smart money" had identified Warner as the most likely candidate around whom the forces wanting to deny Sen. Clinton the nomination would coalesce.

Think of Warner as a candidate akin to Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, who ran afoul of party activists earlier this year because he did not toe the party line.

Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to antiwar activist Ned Lamont, but is favored to win re-election as an independent because of his appeal to the larger group of general election voters.

Although Warner was not well-known nationally -- an August Quinnipiac University poll of public attitudes about potential candidates showed 73 percent did not know enough about him to have an opinion -- insiders saw potential and gave him high marks.

A high-tech entrepreneur who made $200 million in cell phones, Warner was elected in one of the nation's reddest states and left office popular among Virginians. He decided to bypass a challenge to Republican Sen. George Allen this year and instead explore running for president, visiting more than 25 states and giving $9 million to local Democratic candidates through his political action committee.

Although not a conservative by Republican standards, his support for the death penalty, gun rights, certain restrictions on abortion and willingness to challenge Democratic orthodoxy stamped him as a candidate more in the image of President Bill Clinton than 2004 nominee John Kerry.

His ability to write a check for campaign costs and his history of winning in the South were his greatest advantage in the multi-candidate dash for the Democratic nomination.

With Sen. Clinton likely to have the endorsement of most of the party liberal bigwigs, labor unions and activists, the expectation has been that one other Democrat will emerge as the anti-Hillary candidate in the presidential primaries.

Until he dropped from the race, many had expected Warner would be that person.

Warner said he was bypassing a White House run due to family concerns, and no doubt such an effort takes an enormous toll on a candidate's private life.

But, no disrespect meant toward Warner, one wonders would the decision have been the same were Sen. Clinton not such a formidable candidate for the nomination.

Although nothing in politics is certain, and there are many others testing the presidential waters, she is farther ahead in the race for the nomination than any Democratic non-incumbent in many decades.

Of course, the same polls that show her far ahead in the nomination race find her profile among the larger electorate that votes in November to be much less positive, especially in the Sun Belt. Privately many Democrats say she can't win in November.

The hope of many of these Hillary skeptics was that a candidate like Warner could somehow capture the presidential nomination and be much more competitive in the general election.

But although Democrats expect to have a good year this November, that does not necessarily translate to a presidential victory two years hence.

If, as many expect, the Democrats capture the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, will become speaker, and along with Sen. Clinton, the national face of the Democratic Party. In addition, even if Lamont loses, the anti-war wing will remain a major force in the primary selection process.

Of course, politics abhors a vacuum, and someone will become the anti-Hillary candidate in the primaries. But given a lack of other Southern Democrats of Warner's stature, it is unlikely that candidate will have his potential to change the electoral map.

It is early in the 2008 campaign, but Warner's decision is both an important development and quite telling about what is likely to happen.