Iowa's Democratic governor opens '08 run for president

November 10, 2006|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Wasting little time after the Democrat-dominated elections of 2006, Tom Vilsack, Iowa's Democratic governor, opened his campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination yesterday with an assertion that voters "want leaders who will take this country in a new direction."

In a field likely to be dominated by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York - and possibly Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois - Vilsack starts his campaign with little recognition nationally and even some evidence in polls that voters in his home state don't support a White House bid.

Yet Vilsack, a two-term governor, centrist Democrat and down-home leader with a compelling life story, also hails from the state that is host to the first presidential nominating caucuses. This could complicate the impact the caucuses have on the nomination.

This week's elections have set the stage for the '08 campaign, Vilsack said, as he announced his campaign in his hometown of Mt. Pleasant, site of an antique steam farm-tractor museum.

People "want leaders who share their values, understand their needs and respect their intelligence," Vilsack said. "That's what I've done as governor of Iowa, and that's what I intend to do as president."

Vilsack, who leaves office in January, is the first Democrat to formally announce a 2008 presidential bid. Democrat Chet Culver was elected this week to replace him as governor.

With Democrats gaining six governor's offices this week - securing 28 nationally - some say a politically balanced chief executive of a heartland state is a strong model for a presidential nominee. Vilsack is chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and a former chairman of the Democratic governors group.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who offers a Hispanic heritage as part of his profile, said yesterday that he will announce in January his decision about seeking the nomination.

"Remember, ... the last time a senator was elected president was JFK," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. "Governors are on a run lately."

The problem for a candidate such as Vilsack, Goldford said, is "navigating the shoals" of a contest with such well-financed and better-known individuals as Clinton.

"Is he a rock star? No," Goldford said. Clinton "is a rock star. She makes Democratic hearts beat strongly here. ... But the problem is, if she gets the nomination, she starts 170 electoral votes in the hole, because she loses the South."

Concern about Clinton's prospects in a general election could turn many Democrats toward a candidate without the burden of predetermined opposition.

"Voters are looking at governors ... to solve their problems," Richardson said at a breakfast with Washington reporters. "Obviously, Senator Clinton is a formidable candidate. But I think it should be wide open. ... I hope Obama gets in. I hope Senator [John] Kerry gets in. There should be a debate about the heart and soul of the party."

That debate will play out in a competitive campaign for an open White House. Republicans are likely to see their big names - such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona - vying with such lesser-knowns as Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, who announced last week that he will seek the nomination.

In Iowa, Vilsack boasts of creating the Iowa Values Fund, a $500 million program aimed at the creation of new jobs in a state with a changing economy. He has advocated smaller classes in public schools and higher teacher salaries. He has secured health care for uninsured children.

He is not a native Iowan. Born in Pittsburgh in 1951, he was orphaned at birth and adopted. He obtained his bachelor's degree from Hamilton College in New York, and graduated from Albany Law School. He married a woman from Mt. Pleasant, Christie Bell, and became mayor of the town in 1987. He was a state senator before election as governor in 1998.

Yet, a Vilsack candidacy could skew the Democratic caucuses. In 1992, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin sought the Democratic nomination, he won 76 percent of the caucus-goers. Other contenders, including Bill Clinton, who later won the nomination and the presidency, skipped Iowa.

Vilsack, however, is not as popular as Harkin, trailing other potential Democratic candidates in a survey of Iowans this year.

"The caucuses are all about expectations," Goldford said. With an Iowan running, others simply have to run well.

"Right now, everybody is a viable candidate - on Opening Day, everybody is a World Series team," Goldford said.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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