In Va., putting on the grits to win rural vote

Gubernatorial candidate tempers preppy image with bluegrass, NASCAR


RICHMOND, Va. - Mark Warner is a Harvard-educated lawyer from the Midwest who moved to Virginia's Washington suburbs and made a fortune in the cell phone industry. And now, doggone it, he's running for governor as a good ol' boy.

A political adviser by the name of Mudcat is helping Warner get in touch with his inner Bubba.

David "Mudcat" Saunders, a developer, self-described deal-doer and unpaid political dabbler who knows how to find votes in Virginia's hills and farms, has taken the Alexandria suburbanite turkey hunting.

He persuaded Warner to bankroll a NASCAR pickup-truck racing team. And he fixed Warner up with a foot-stompin' bluegrass campaign ballad that gets right to the point.

"Mark Warner is a good ol' boy from up in NOVA-ville. He understands our people, the folks up in the hills," the song opens. (NOVA-ville is the song's made-up countrified name for Northern Virginia). And later: "From the coal mines to the stills, here comes Mark Warner, the hero of the hills."

Warner, who is 46 and worth at least $200 million, is unchallenged in the June 12 Democratic primary for his party's nomination to replace Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, who cannot run again because of the state's one-term limit.

Attorney General Mark Earley and Lt. Gov. John Hager are seeking the Republican nomination at the GOP state convention June 1-2.

Warner was born in Indianapolis. He spent his childhood there and in Illinois and finished high school in Connecticut.

He graduated from George Washington University in 1977 and Harvard Law School in 1980, returning to Washington in the 1980s. He moved to Virginia in 1986 and three years later managed the campaign of L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor.

Warner also served as chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Four years ago, Warner spent $10 million of his fortune and came close to defeating the state's senior Republican, Sen. John W. Warner. Since then, he has invested start-up capital for small technology ventures in rural Virginia. For the past year, he has spent much of his campaign time in those small towns.

"Rural Virginia is used to being ignored. They really remember when someone pays them some attention, even if it's not lavish," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor.

On the other hand, Sabato said, the idea of Warner as a boot-scootin' farmboy is laughable to anybody who knows him.

"This guy is a classic suburbanite, right down to his button-down oxford shirts and his pressed khaki pants," he said.

Paul Wailes III, an Amherst clothing shop owner and an independent voter with a conservative streak, said he doesn't buy Warner's country cooking himself. But he said he thinks it's likely to be effective.

"Knowing his real background, it seems like a 145-degree turn, doesn't it?" Wailes said.

"I only know what I read about him, and he seems to me really kind of a preppy, outgoing kind of guy," he added.

Ed Matricardi, the state Republican Party's executive director, said Warner has assumed a fake hillbilly persona that real country people find patronizing and condescending. "He's no bumpkin. He's a city slicker, and Virginians aren't buying what he's trying to sell," Matricardi said.

Warner said he is not trying to be something he isn't. "But that does not mean you can't reach out to rural communities," he said. "They've been ignored, particularly by Democrats, for a long time, and I'm not going to do that."

Country voters have voted about two-thirds Republican since 1993.

Earlier this month, Warner spent at least $1 million on a round of TV ads showing him touring a peanut processing plant, mingling with small-town crowds and posing with his campaign's own NASCAR racing team.

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