Beyond the big three: Several candidates could shake up Va.

Three front-runners have emerged in the nearly two weeks since Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) announced his retirement, but there is no shortage of potential candidates quietly weighing their options on the state’s first open seat in 20 years.

Former Gov. Mark Warner (D) will announce his 2008 Senate plans on Thursday, according to a spokeswoman, while Rep. Tom Davis (R) and former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) are expected to make their intentions official in the coming months.

Mark Warner leads each of his top two potential GOP rivals by 20 points in a new Rasmussen poll on the race, but the picture might not be complete, especially on the Republican side.

Several Republican members of Congress have built up Senate-worthy war chests in recent years and could shake up what looks to be a contested GOP primary. Some in the party have expressed concern about Davis’s centrism and Gilmore’s chances.

At the top of their list is Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Sources close to Cantor did not return calls, but a senior GOP aide said Cantor is waiting to see how the field of candidates shapes up. The source called Cantor a “big wildcard” as a reliable conservative with a national fundraising base.

Democrats would look to make it a race even without their extremely popular former governor, and several state politicians are making it known that they would consider running if Mark Warner doesn’t.

For now, all eyes are on Warner, and the major potential Democratic candidates are deferring to him. If Warner runs for governor, however, former Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, Rep. Rick Boucher, state Sen. Creigh Deeds and state Del. Brian Moran all harbor statewide aspirations and would consider Senate bids.

Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) has also been mentioned as a potential candidate.

The 2006 election showed that Democrats don’t necessarily need a big-name recruit to compete in Virginia, which has seen some extremely close statewide races in recent years. Last year, Jim Webb beat Sen. George Allen (R) to join Gov. Tim Kaine as the second Democrat in two years to win the state’s marquee race.

Still, Democrats recognize Warner’s stature and are adjusting their plans accordingly.

Indeed, a Rasmussen poll released Tuesday shows Warner defeating Davis and Gilmore by margins of 57-30 and 54-34, respectively.

Warner’s favorability is 68 percent in the poll, including 38 percent very favorable, and he has lower unfavorable ratings than the lesser-known Republicans.

Meanwhile, Deeds, his party’s 2005 attorney general nominee, and Moran, the brother of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), are both eyeing the governor’s mansion but would consider the Senate.

Deeds lost his race in 2005 by 323 votes out of nearly 2 million cast.

Both are currently focused on leading their party’s efforts in the 2007 state legislature elections and are unlikely to make any announcements until after Election Day.

For his part, Beyer said he has “a high level of interest” in running for Senate. A two-term lieutenant governor, he has been out of office since 1998 and said his young children and business prevented him from running for another seat.

“Both of those conditions are met now; unfortunately, there’s this Gov. Warner,” joked Beyer, who lost a race for governor in 1997.

Jesse Ferguson, Moran’s political director, said Moran “has not ruled anything in or out until after the state legislative races.”

A Deeds spokesman, Peter Jackson, said Deeds is “keeping all options open.”

Boucher has more than $1 million cash on hand in his House account and has long harbored statewide aspirations. He also represents a key district that voted 59 percent for President Bush in 2004. A Democratic source said he would consider the race.

Boucher said Warner will win the seat if he decides to run, and he wouldn’t “speculate on hypotheticals” concerning his own political future.

Among Republicans, several congressmen have sizeable war chests and have been the subject of Senate rumors in the past.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte has a bigger campaign account ($1.4 million) than Davis ($1 million), and Cantor has raised slightly more money ($1.1 million) than Davis ($1 million) this cycle.

Republican sources say the three of them have been relatively quiet since Warner’s retirement.

Cantor would have to give up his leadership position in the House, where he serves as chief deputy minority whip.

Rep. Randy Forbes has also been mentioned as a potential candidate.

Another name making the rounds is former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who last week had a newspaper column urging him to run posted to his website. Calls to Buchanan were not returned by press time.