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Profile of Mark Warner: Ivy Leaguer with rural NASCAR draw

As the Democratic keynote speaker, he has the down-home image his party needs to broaden its support.

By Staff writer / August 25, 2008

Party leaders: Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean (right) and former Virginia Governor Mark Warner onstage Sunday before the convention in Denver. Mr. Warner delivers the keynote address Tuesday.

REUTERS/Larry Downing

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Reston, Va. – Democrats could cite many reasons for tapping former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner to give the keynote address at their national convention Tuesday night.

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Here’s the executive summary: Highly successful venture capitalist becomes even more successful governor of a swing state seen as critical to Democratic presidential hopes in 2008. Also: Democrat sinks deep roots in a gun-toting, NASCAR-loving culture long ceded to Republicans – and wins.

For a new generation of Democrats, Warner represents the pragmatic face of a less partisan, bitter, and gridlocked future. He aims to develop those themes in his convention speech.

Senator Obama has touched a chord in people that is pretty special. Clearly, he has got the policy papers and he’s going to start laying out the plan. What I want to try to say is: This plan is doable,” he said in an interview with the Monitor in the run-up to this week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC).

“Sometimes, you’ve got this litany of problems and it feels overwhelming, and if there’s nothing else I want to convey it is that this can be fixed. For all our challenges, this is the greatest nation in the world and we can do this,” he adds, speaking in Reston, Va., after a town meeting with employees at Unisys Corporation.

Warner’s address comes on a highly charged night for the DNC that includes a speech by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, Obama’s closest rival once viewed as the party’s “inevitable” nominee in 2008. Both are expected to address the economy.

Warner says that he will use this speech to talk about the future.

“The Democratic Party is at its best when it’s about the future,” he says. “It’s at its best when it’s expanding wealth, not redistributing it; embracing new technology tools, like the Internet, rather than protecting the old.”

“There are elements in the Democratic Party that are afraid of the future,” he adds.

But the subtext of the evening is how the party’s most committed activists will absorb the fallout of the Clinton-Obama power struggle.

On Monday, the McCain campaign released a new ad featuring a Clinton supporter urging a crossover vote for John McCain.

“My gut feeling is that this anger and frustration is not being driven by Senators Obama and Clinton themselves, but by their most loyal followers in some cases. And at some point they’ve got to say: This is too important a time. The stakes are too high,” he says.

As in his business career, Warner’s life in politics included missteps and failures, but he always found a way forward. His first two business ventures in energy and real estate failed.

Then, he moved into venture capital and helped start up Nextel, a cellular phone network that merged with rival Sprint, leaving Warner with millions in seed money for new ventures.

In 1996, Warner opted to get into politics. He started at the top with a bid to unseat Virginia’s senior senator John Warner (no relation) by running as “the technology candidate.” Despite spending some $10 million of his own money on that campaign, he lost, although at 52-47 percent the race was closer than many expected.

“Mark Warner learned from that race that the rest of the state was not like northern Virginia, where he spent most of his time,” says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. To progress in politics, “He had to go into rural areas and talk about economic development,” she says.