Warner Says Bye Today?

With the announcement today that Sen. John Warner (R.-VA) will make his ’08 political plans official in an afternoon address at the University of Virginia (where he earned his law degree more than a half-century ago), betting is overwhelming that the 80-year-old senator will say he’s leaving.

Warner, whose 30 years in the Senate is a record for the Old Dominion, has raised no money for a re-election bid and has seen two top aides that he reportedly depended closely on leave his office for other ventures. The senator was most recently in the news with his call last week for a withdrawl of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Should Warner say he’s leaving, the long-anticipated nomination battle between seven-term Rep. Tom Davis of Northern Virginia and former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Richmond will be upon Old Dominion GOPers. Former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who explored and then opted against a race for president, is reportedly now poised to announce his candidacy if John Warner (no relation) goes. In 1996, Mark won an impressive 46% of the vote against John in what has been the Republican Warner’s closest race since first winning the Senate seat in a cliff-hanger in 1978.

Davis, whose cultivation of federal employees (who are populous in his districts) and pro-abortion stand have made him suspect among many conservatives, is nonetheless a master campaigner with more than $1 million in his kitty. Davis has freely dispensed campaign cash to local candidates far to his right, notably Prince William County Supervisor John Stirrup, father of the tough anti-illegal immigration measure that has put his county on the political map. In addition, there has been not-so-subtle suggestions Davis will have the backing of John Warner, as Davis’s longtime closest political advisor John Hishta is a past Warner campaign manager.

Stalwart conservative Jim Gilmore, who abandoned the GOP presidential field because of difficulties raising money, has reportedly been planning a Senate bid in the event Warner quits. Sources close to the former governor, who is also a former state attorney general and county prosecutor, tell me he has polls showing him beating Davis by as much as 2-to-1 statewide.

In addition, under a unique Virginia law, the incumbent office-holder gets to choose the avenue for nomination — primary or state convention. A convention is thought to vastly enhance Gilmore in a race against Davis, as conventioneers tend to be more conservative. Without an incumbent running, h however, the state GOP executive committee will decide later this year whether the Senate nominee is picked in a convention or primary.

“The odds are probably 55-to-45 it will be a convention now, but that could change,” one old Virginia GOP hand told me over lunch two weeks ago.