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Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., gestures during a town hall meeting at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va., Monday, Jan. 12. [EVA RUSSO/RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH]Barely a week on the job, Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., is escaping Washington for Richmond, trying to do more listening than talking on the sour economy.

In what aides dubbed his first field trip since taking office Jan. 6, Warner met for more than 90 minutes yesterday with about 30 college students and small-business owners at the downtown campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

Acknowledging their concerns about joblessness, debt, health care and taxes, Warner said that President-elect Barack Obama's giant stimulus measure is necessary to jump-start the economy.

Jennifer Witten of Fredericksburg, a graduate student of pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University, said interest on her loans -- 7 percent -- is twice what she paid as an undergraduate.

"It's like a mortgage on my education," said Witten, who -- along with VCU dental student Frank Henrich -- wondered why rates on student loans aren't falling as those on mortgages are.

Frequently gesticulating and roaming the room, Warner said the Obama package is a work in progress that could pump millions into Virginia for transportation and public works.

"We've got to grab the economy and give it a jolt," said Warner, who was joined at the campus by Richmond Mayor Dwight Clinton Jones.

"Send the money down," Jones said.

Sharon Madere, who heads the Midlothian pet-products business she started, said uncertainty over tax rates is an obstacle to job creation. Her firm recently cut payroll by 10 percent, trimming it to 85 workers.

Warner, a former governor, told Madere he hopes the tax code can be retooled so "you'll get some predictability."

Warner's dash to Richmond was a reminder of the emphasis he places on visibility back home, in contrast with the Republican he succeeded, John W. Warner, and the state's new senior senator, Democrat Jim Webb.

Warner, a multimillionaire high-tech investor keen for a seat on the Senate Commerce Committee, echoed voter criticism -- reflected in public-opinion polls -- of the Bush administration's $350 billion financial-services rescue.

Because so few understand how it works, the Troubled Assets Relief Program is appropriately known by its acronym, TARP, said Warner, adding, "it's covering over the mess."