RICHMOND, Va. – Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner (search) was more than halfway through his single term in office before he even found his footing. Now, all of a sudden, he is being mentioned for the Senate in 2006 and the White House in 2008.
The breakthrough came last year, when he prevailed against all odds and pushed a big tax overhaul -- and a big tax increase, too -- through the Republican-dominated Legislature, and still managed to look like a fiscal moderate. It was the first general tax increase in Virginia since 1986.
As Warner enters his final year, his job approval ratings are high, and he is being talked up as the sort of centrist Dixie Democrat who might show his leaderless party how to win again in the South and retake the presidency.
His name has come up in nationally syndicated columns, on political talk shows, in Newsweek and on blogs as Democrats grope for a new direction after John Kerry's defeat.
Warner waves off such talk -- at least for now -- as a distraction that could hamper his ability to work with the Legislature.
"Too many Virginia governors have messed up their last year because they've spent too much time thinking about what they're going to do next," he said in an interview last week.
Warner, 50, built a $200 million fortune in the cell phone industry, but had never held elected office before he was sworn in three years ago, and his boardroom skills seemed ill-suited to legislative skirmishing.
In 2002 and 2003, a harried and uncertain Warner was pummeled by a hostile House of Delegates, which killed such ideas as mandatory seat belt use and an end to the state's unique prohibition against governors' serving two consecutive terms.
The turning point came last year when Warner pushed for changes in the World War I-era tax laws, warning that the code would make budget shortfalls commonplace and spoil Virginia's cherished bond rating, which has never been less than perfect.
He proposed increasing the sales tax, raising income taxes on upper-income households and boosting the cigarette tax, which at 2.5 cents per pack was the lowest in the nation. It would have generated about $1 billion.
Conservative House GOP leaders, adamantly opposed to any new taxes, reached a bitter impasse with Republican moderates in the Senate who wanted tax increases three times larger than the governor's.
Warner strategically teamed up with business leaders and advocates for state teachers, public employees, the elderly and the disabled.
After a record 115 days in session -- nearly double the allotted two months -- 17 House Republicans broke with their party's anti-tax orthodoxy and joined with Democrats to pass a $1.4 billion tax increase.
"I guess you could say he got his mojo back," said Steve Jarding, a Harvard University politics professor who managed Warner's campaign for governor and remains close to him.
Sen. George Allen (search), R-Va. -- himself a folksy and popular former governor -- is already using the prospect of a re-election challenge from Warner next year to scare up campaign contributions from Republicans.
Jarding, however, wants his old boss to aim higher, noting that the White House field is more wide open now than at any time since 1952.
Matthew Streb, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said a centrist Democrat who has succeeded in a Republican Southern state may enjoy an edge over fellow Democratic governors such as Bill Richardson (search) of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack (search) of Iowa.
"The Democrats have to find a way to make inroads in the South," Streb said. "One way is to get a Southerner at the head of the ticket. Warner has pushed health care reform, he's pushed education reform, but he also has a record of being moderate fiscally."
Republicans and anti-tax groups, however, lay in wait, ready to attack Warner for increasing taxes after pledging as a candidate he would not.
"It's an issue of trust," said Christopher J. LaCivita, a GOP consultant and top adviser last year to the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search). "He's as big a fake politically as any actor on TV."
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (search), beamed as he pondered a chance to make a campaign issue out of Warner's 2004 tax fight.
"He's everything Republicans want in an opponent: a lying tax-increaser," he said. "Yesss! Bring him on."