On June 27, the news across the AP wire included casualties in Iraq, missing Navy Seals in Afghanistan, and Governor Mark Warner falling off his bike—leaving many to wonder, “Who the hell is Mark Warner?” Answer: He’s the 50-year old Democratic governor of Virginia whom many Dem powerbrokers are predicting will emerge as a dark horse favorite in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Hilary Clinton is way ahead now because she’s ambitious and out there, but she’s getting overexposed too early,” says an influential Democratic strategist. Though Warner has no real national profile, his bio reads like a Democrat’s wet dream. Among the highlights:

 He’s a populist politician from a southern state, just like the last three Democrats to win the White House.

 He’s a self-made millionaire venture capitalist with the deep pockets to fund his own political ambitions, not to mention important ties to big business.

 He was raised in Indiana, so he can also speak mid-western, albeit in a Southern drawl.

 He’s gaining national recognition as chairman of the Governor’s Association (which is meeting this week in Iowa, conveniently enough).

And most importantly, he once sponsored his own NASCAR team. “In a national election, Warner will be able to speak to the all-important NASCAR dads without looking contrived or uncomfortable,” the strategist adds. “He’s the only man in the party who can turn swing states like Virginia, Florida, and Ohio blue.”

During John Kerry’s presidential run last year, Warner begged the candidate to come to Virginia, in hope that the state, which has not voted Democratic in over 50 years, might reconsider if Kerry campaigned there. But Kerry hemmed and hawed over the invitation. “He called five people to ask if he should go there instead of Florida,” says our source. “Finally, Mark got fed up and told him to forget about it.” A Democrat with no time for chin-stroking? Sounds like a contender! Warner has reportedly founded a PAC called Forward Together to help fund a possible run and has hired one of Al Gore’s top aides as a political advisor. But so far he hasn’t announced any plans for 2008.

“The governor has six more months in office and he intends to finish strong,” said Warner spokesman Kevin Hall. “He has not made any indication what comes next—he’s simply keeping his eye on the ball.” The inaugural ball, perhaps?