RICHMOND -- Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner declared Tuesday night that the nation was engaged in a race for the future and that Barack Obama was the presidential candidate who could best lead the American people to win it.

"This election isn't about liberal versus conservative," Warner said in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. "It's not about left versus right. It's about the future versus the past."

He cited his own experience with bipartisanship to solve problems when he was governor of from 2002-06. At the time, Warner faced a Republican-dominated legislature, a large budget shortfall and a stalled state economy. He closed the shortfall, and the Commonwealth was named the best managed state in the nation, he said.

In giving Warner the spotlight, Democrats and the Obama campaign are showing they not only consider Virginia in play this election, but think it's a state they can win. The party hasn't carried the Commonwealth since 1964.

Warner is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia running against former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore. The two are campaigning to replace outgoing Republican Sen. John Warner, who is not related to the former governor.

Here at the Baha Bean restaurant on West Main St. in the fan district of Richmond, supporters of Warner gathered to watch the address, set for 9:30 p.m. ET. Their cheers were perhaps loudest when he mentioned Lebanon, Va., a coal town struck with a severe loss of jobs several years ago. It has seen an economic resurgence since a technology firm was established there.

"It's incredibly exciting," Nick Kessler, 34, president of the metro Richmond area Young Democrats, said of Warner's speech. "We're very proud to have him talking about Virginia and Barack Obama, and we certainly believe he's going to be our next United States senator."

Warner emphasized his working class roots, a trait Obama hasn't been able to promote effectively to reach working class voters. Warner extolled the United States' opportunities to become successful with hard work and ingenuity.

"There's only one country in the world ... where I could have been given not just one chance, or two, but three, and where I could have succeeded," Warner said. "And that's this country, the United States of America."

Warner said the way to lead the United States to prosperity was by investing alternative energy and shunning foreign oil, while working to insure people without health care and bolster secondary education.

"It's not just the policy differences," Warner said. "It's the fact that this president never tapped into our greatest resources -- the character and resolve of the American people. He never asked them to step up."

He said Obama would strive for bipartisanship and was a leader who would "see our common ground as sacred ground."

But while Warner preached a message of working together, he did not shy away from taking shots at McCain, saying the Republican candidate's policies were one in the same with those of the Bush administration, whose thinking Warner called "outdated."

Warner also said Barack Obama would be the candidate best suited for revitalizing the troubled U.S. economy, especially in areas hardest hit, including Flint, Mich., and Danville, Va.

Jonathan Ward, a 20-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University from Danville, watched the speech from the Baha Bean restaurant, and said Warner reiterates Obama's message of change.

"When [Warner] talks about working class roots," Ward said, "he's serious and he means business. He was pretty instrumental in implementing a lot of high school programs. That's probably the only reason I was able to take an AP (Advanced Placement) class in high school."

Danville, once a major textile center, has been losing jobs to outsourcing since the mid-1990s.

"You've had people who have worked in a factory for 30 years and lost their job," Ward said.

Warner was praised in Virginia for delivering broadband Internet service to remote areas of the state in an effort to revitalize depressed areas of the state.

Contact staff writer Dan Petty at dan.petty@richmond.edu

This story updates an earlier version published Tuesday night.

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