GOP's Sen. Warner, Key Voice on Iraq, to Retire

Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2008 and will retire after 30 years in the Senate. Warner has been one of the most authoritative voices in Congress on the military — and a key figure in the debate over the war in Iraq. Warner's retirement will make it even more difficult for Republicans to win back the Senate majority that they lost in November.

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As we've just heard, John Warner is one of the Senate's leading voices on defense issues.

And today, the Virginia Republican made a long-awaited announcement about his future. After nearly 30 years in the Senate, Warner said he will not be seeking a sixth term next year. His decision to bow out comes at a time of serious doubts as to whether the GOP can win back control of the Senate next year.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Senator Warner chose to break the suspense about his personal plans out on the grounds of his law school alma mater, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): The sun is hot, the day is beautiful, and I shall be brief.

WELNA: The 80-year-old senator stood near a statue of the university's founder, Thomas Jefferson, and he made that Founding Father's reason for leaving elected office two centuries ago his own.

Sen. WARNER: Jefferson said there is a fullness of time when men should go and not occupy too long the ground to which others have the right to advance. So I say with great humility and thankfulness in my heart, I yield that ground so that others can advance.

WELNA: Warner is already Virginia's second-longest serving senator, after the late Harry Byrd. As the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he's also been one of the Senate's leading voices on Iraq. Warner largely wrote the use of force authorization for Iraq that Congress approved five years ago, but he had since repeatedly questioned President Bush's military campaign there.

His fellow Virginia senator, Democrat Jim Webb, today had warm praise for Warner, calling him an honest broker in the debate over Iraq.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): Senator Warner has been a leading voice on the other side of the aisle, trying to find true solutions for the situation that we have found ourselves in Iraq. I think that the president would do well to listen to Senator Warner carefully over the next year and four months.

WELNA: Warner, today, has said he'll keep pushing for the U.S. to get out of Iraq with what he called dignity.

In the meantime, his fellow Virginia Republicans will be scrambling to come up with a candidate for Warner's open seat. George Mason University's Mark Rozell says Warner's decision to retire is a big blow to his party.

Professor MARK ROZELL (Public Policy, George Mason University): The Republicans were hoping that John Warner would hold this seat - hold it for the party -that's gone. Virginia is a transitioning state. It's becoming a much more competitive two-party state. It is a great opportunity for the Democrats to pick up another.

WELNA: A couple of Virginia Republicans, Congressman Tom Davis and former governor Jim Gilmore are all but certain to pursue Warner's seat.

But Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Bob Holsworth says, there is one Democrat who could be very hard to beat should he choose to run.

Professor BOB HOLSWORTH (Political Science, Virginia Commonwealth University): I think the big question right now is, will former governor Mark Warner, who left office extremely popular, now decide to seek a seat in the Senate. And if he does so, he'll certainly be the early frontrunner to take this seat.

WELNA: Still, Holsworth sites Democrat Webb's defeat of incumbent Republican George Allen last year as evidence that when it comes to Virginia, expect the unexpected.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Warner's Move Adds to Growing GOP Senate Woes

Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner's decision to retire at the end of his fifth term next year puts into play a Senate seat that has long eluded Democrats, at a time when a growing number of Republican-held seats have become vulnerable.

Warner, who is 80, would have been favored to win re-election if he had run again. Now, Democrats are optimistic that they can capture Warner's seat, partly because of changing politics in Virginia. It has long been the dominion of the GOP, but Virginia increasingly is a two-party state. Democrats have won back-to-back races for governor, and Sen. George Allen — the Republican who was already measuring drapes for the White House — was unseated in a shocker last year.

Virginia's populous and wealthy northern suburbs have become more and more Democratic. Republican Rep. Tom Davis has been able to win in the 11th Congressional District because of his moderate politics. Davis, who has long said he would run for the Senate if Warner retired, signaled Friday that he is ready to do so.

Battle Expected for Republican Nomination

But Davis' moderation could hurt him in a statewide bid, as Virginia Republicans are decidedly conservative, and a primary challenge from the right is likely. One name widely bandied about is former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who abandoned his longshot bid for the GOP presidential nomination in July.

Gilmore's standing in the state has not been great since he left the governorship after 2001. But Virginia conservatives like Gilmore — and that could prove to be all the support he needs.

That's because the state GOP gets to decide whether the nominee to replace Warner is chosen in a primary or by a convention. In the latter scenario, the advantage would go to conservatives, who tend to show up at conventions in greater numbers than in a primary.

Either way, the fight for the GOP nomination between Davis and Gilmore is likely to get ugly, and could sap the Republican Party by the time the general campaign season rolls around.

GOP anxiety about the seat contrasts with Democratic optimism, especially if former Gov. Mark Warner, the Democrat who succeeded Gilmore as governor, decides to enter the Senate race. He would be the Democrats' dream candidate.

Unlike Gilmore, Mark Warner (no relation to John Warner) left the governorship extremely popular — and he was able to get his anointed successor, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, elected. If Mark Warner decides to run, Democrats could very well find themselves holding both Virginia Senate seats for the first time since 1970.

Vulnerable GOP Senate Seats

That's not good news for Republicans, who must defend 22 of the 34 seats at stake in 2008. In addition to Warner, Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard is stepping down, and Democrats — who are on a roll in that state — are optimistic about their chances.

At least four Republicans seeking re-election — Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and John Sununu of New Hampshire — are expecting a serious challenge.

And there are questions about the future of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who is the subject of a federal kickback investigation, and New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, who may be hurt from the role he is said to have played in the firing of the U.S. attorney in his area.

Finally, there's Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose name was never expected to appear on a list of vulnerable seats. But this week, it was disclosed that Craig was arrested in June in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Craig had been in office for more than a quarter-century, but his political future evaporated in just a couple of days.

Since the news of his arrest and guilty plea, there has been a drumbeat of pressure on Craig from his fellow Republicans to resign his seat. The last thing the Republicans wanted, when the Senate comes back on Tuesday from its August recess, was the spotlight to be on a sex scandal involving one of their own. (The transgressions of then-Congressman Mark Foley of Florida are thought to have badly hurt the GOP going into the 2006 elections.)

Craig's announcement on Saturday that he would vacate his seat, effective Sept. 30, was inevitable. It removes from the scene an embarrassment for the GOP, and it allows Republican Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to name a replacement — possibly Lt. Gov. Jim Risch. Risch would then go into the 2008 elections as a clear favorite in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1974.

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