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

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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