Vilsack kicks off campaign aimed at the White House

Iowa governor becomes first Democrat to make candidacy official

December 01, 2006|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa -- Tom Vilsack's moment in the presidential sun came yesterday in a gymnasium, and it lasted about 17 minutes. It ended with a couple of blasts of red, white and blue confetti fired from a metal cannon off-stage while a beat-and-blow band played the Four Tops' tune "I'll Be There."

And with that the 55-year-old, two-term Iowa governor, the first Democrat to officially enter the 2008 presidential race, prepared to head to the airport, hoping to catch a little more sunlight in Pennsylvania and three early and likely make-or-break primary or caucus states - New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Whatever drama there was in the presidential candidacy declaration is long gone, pummeled by months and months of candidates first expressing qualified interest in running, then playing footsie on the Sunday morning talk shows and then setting up exploratory campaign committees that might or might not result in their running.

Vilsack's declaration, on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University and in the town where he served as mayor for five years, produced a news media response that reflects the diminished stature of the official announcement. CNN showed only excerpts. Midway through Vilsack's speech, MSNBC's John Harwood - standing only 50 feet from the governor - delivered a live report about Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a prepared but not-out-of-the-oven Republican presidential candidate.

An hour before people started arriving at Vilsack's announcement, Fox News was talking about a marquee confrontation between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two perpetually exposed Democrats in the might-be-but-not-quite-yet phase of running for president.

The declining status of the official announcement might say as much about the news media's attention deficit disorder as it does about the continuing campaign by candidates to get noticed. But the reality is that Vilsack is running and now his job is to attract attention to himself - and, ultimately, to become the first candidate from the Midwest elected president in more than a half-century.

"Let us stop the endless partisan debate and empty talk," said Vilsack, who in 1998 became the state's first Democratic governor in 32 years. As he told the crowd of several hundred supporters, he has "always been the underdog and long shot" and has "always been inspired by stories of ordinary people who struggled but ultimately succeeded."

Vilsack has been described as resembling Winnie the Pooh and, as a public speaker, he tacks more toward sincerity than rhetorical fire. Unlike the last Iowan who ran for president, the loquacious Sen. Tom Harkin, Vilsack's stage presence suggests impatience with the obligatory folderol and a desire to get down to business.

"He's off the radar screen with people on the East Coast. Iowa is not Idaho, and it's not Ohio. It's Iowa," said Mary Beth Young, a retired teacher and administrator who attended the pot luck dinner that preceded his announcement. Radio station WHO-AM, the most powerful in Iowa, asked in a midday newscast whether Vilsack would be viewed in New Hampshire as "a hayseed."

In eight years as governor, Vilsack earned the reputation of a strong advocate for education and a proponent of balanced budgets. As a victim of child abuse, Vilsack fought to strengthen the tools that officials need to investigate child abuse.

Vilsack is described by those who know him as solid, studious, earnest and tending toward impatience.

"People are tired of the shallow, scripted candidates with blow-dry hair," said Lt. Gov. Sally Peterson. "He has the right set of values."

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Thomas James Vilsack

AGE, BIRTH DATE, LOCATION: 56; Dec. 13, 1950; Pittsburgh. He was orphaned at birth and was adopted on April 10, 1951.

EXPERIENCE: Mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, 1987-1992; state senator, 1992-1998; governor of Iowa, 1998-2006; practiced law in Mount Pleasant before becoming governor.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, Hamilton College, 1972; law degree, Albany Law School, 1975

FAMILY: Wife, Christie Vilsack; two adult sons, Jess and Doug

QUOTE: "I have always been the underdog and long shot. And I have always been inspired by stories of ordinary people who struggled but ultimately succeeded."

[Associated Press]

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