FAIRFAX, Va. — How often do you hear a Democrat on the campaign stump tell a largely partisan audience that some of the attendees might be well-advised to vote for a Republican?
That's exactly what happened when Sen. Mark Warner stopped on a college campus a few weeks ago.
"If you're a Democrat, you may have to vote for a Republican who is willing to do revenues," the Virginia Democrat said. "If you're a Republican, vote for a Democrat who's willing to do entitlement reform." In any case Warner, the former Virginia governor who is favored to win re-election against former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie this fall, and has often been talked about as someone who could end up on a national ticket, said no one should vote "for anybody who's signed one of these stupid pledges" such as the anti-tax one championed by the Grover Norquist-led group Americans for Tax Reform.
"If you hire people with one hand tied behind your back, you're going to get more of the same," Warner said in reference to the congressional penchant for can-kicking.
While many of his fellow Democrats have moved on from the deficit wars to more poll-tested topics, Warner hasn't.
At the late-recess campaign stop, the Virginia Democrat was talking to a crowd of college students at George Mason University about the cost of student loans, but he had to work in a reference to changes to entitlement programs he views as necessary to get the nation's fiscal house in order — like lifting the retirement age for Social Security.
"How many of you would be willing to wait an extra year to get Social Security if you knew you were actually going to get it?" Warner asked, looking for, and getting, a strong show of hands from the young audience.
"If you move away from sequestration, if you want to deal with our national debt, these elements have to be a part of the, the discussion," Warner said in a brief interview last week at the Capitol. "And it's not just a student debt thing. I always ask the crowds under 35, 'Would you consider this as one of the components?'
"It's always 90-percent plus," he said.
While Warner's talking up entitlement cuts and grand bargains on the stump, Democratic leaders are set to hold a rally Thursday titled, “Hands Off Social Security and Medicare – We Earned It!” with various left-leaning interest groups and unions. Among the Democrats expected to attend: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Bruce Braley, the party's nominee for the Iowa Senate seat.
By contrast, Warner sounds a lot like a new Kent Conrad — without as many charts.
Conrad, the former Senate Budget chairman from North Dakota, was known for searing warnings about the debt. When CQ Roll Call crossed paths with the former senator last week and asked who is taking on his old role, he said, "It's Mark Warner."
"He's terrific," Conrad added, noting he was recently visiting his old staff, who told him Warner is the one persistently asking them the for reports and analysis.
The question remains whether Warner — either in the Senate or in a bid for higher office down the line — can be more successful than Conrad and others have been at selling a grand bargain of fiscal pain.
"Mark's a good man. He is smart. He is committed to what's in the best interests of the country, and yeah I think there will always be a place for Mark Warners in any political organization," said fellow "gang of six" leader Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
Another member of that old club, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, likewise praised Warner for skills behind the scenes, even as the debt and deficit negotiators were sidelined as talks progressed at the leadership level in those rounds.
"Let me tell you, Kent was the best and none of us will fill that void. But Mark really has, not only a passion for the issue, his experience as a governor ... particularly with a Republican legislature has led him to have a special talent for coalition building and bipartisanship. That is the only way we are going to solve this problem, so I'm a big fan of Mark," the Illinois Democrat said. "He's extraordinary when it comes to bringing people together and hammering out an agreement."
Is there room for a new group to take a stab at a deal?
"I hope so," Durbin said. "It's a hard task. It was hard when we tackled it. But for those of us who were engaged in it we learned a lot about it, we learned a lot about our colleagues. I think we have a better feel for what's in the realm of reality and I wouldn't give up on it. I think Mark is going to be a major player on this issue."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he enjoyed working with Warner.
"He worked hard to try to bring together a consensus and you've got to give him his credit for that to much consternation of the outside groups who were totally opposed to that," he said.
But Warner plays what seems like an increasingly unique role within the Democratic caucus, a foil of sorts to more liberal voices such as Warren.
Warren's student loan refinancing bill, which was the news peg for town hall meetings with Senate Democrats across the county, had qualified support from Warner.
In a floor speech, he said he supported the debate, but said it should be more expansive, pointing to other legislative proposals he also discussed on the George Mason campus.
"Right now in Washington, we are again having a conversation about refinancing student loans, which I support. But I also think this conversation is shortsighted. We need to be bolder and go further," said Warner. "I have introduced and will continue to push for a set of bipartisan, targeted reforms that would reduce cost, increase transparency and allow students to better manage their debt."
Related: Mark Warner Is No. 5 on Roll Call's 50 Richest list. Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.