But not always. When Mark Warner dropped out of the 2008 presidential race Thursday, the former Virginia governor shocked a lot of people, beginning with the many Democratic professionals and activists who fervently believed he would make both a strong candidate and a good president. "It's definitely a blow," says Jim Jordan, a Democratic operative who had signed on to help Warner's run for the White House. For Jordan, and others like him in both Washington and places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Warner's credentials as a popular former Democratic governor of a Republican state and, prior to that, a hugely successful venture capitalist made him the Democratic Party's best hope to capture independent and swing voters in a 2008 general election.
In the competition to be the un-Hillary, Warner had risen to the top. He was doing everything right as he positioned himself to run for the presidency raising buckets of money for other Democrats, schmoozing activists in key primary states, winning lots of positive reviews in the press. Although the prospect of competing with Senator Clinton for the nomination is daunting for any Democratic candidate, Warner had firmly established himself as a top-tier alternative. If anyone was in a position to topple Hillary, or to benefit if she chose not to run, it was Warner.
And yet he says he woke up Monday morning and decided he had his priorities all wrong. After a weekend that included celebrating his father's 81st birthday and touring colleges with the eldest of his three daughters, Warner began telling close staffers and supporters that he planned to drop out. "I know these moments are never going to come again," Warner said today. "This weekend made clear what I'd been thinking about for many weeks that while politically this appears to be the right time for me to take the plunge, at this point, I want to have a real life."
Perhaps there's a hidden truth that belies Warner's simple explanation, a skeleton in a closet that was about to get the kind of rummaging that only a presidential campaign can bring. But the known evidence suggests he is being honest. Those close to him say that even though his wife and daughters were willing to support a presidential run, he felt guilty about missing so much of his children's lives for the sake of pursuing political office. A fiercely ambitious man, he discovered something he didn't expect when he asked himself how badly he wanted the ultimate prize: ambivalence.