Why Tom Vilsack Is Starting So Early

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If you're thinking about winning the Democratic presidential nomination and you're not already on a first (Hillary) or last name (Obama) basis with millions of Americans, it won't be easy. You have to find a compelling personal story or policy idea to distinguish yourself from at least a half dozen other similar politicians. Then, you need to sell that story convincingly to the news media, to experienced political talent you want on your staff and, most importantly, to the deep-pocketed money men or the emerging Netroots who can help you raise upwards of $20 million to run a competitive race. Worse yet, you have to try to do this while all of those groups are to one degree or another sitting on their hands, eagerly anticipating a candidacy from Hillary or Obama. Then, as Howard Dean learned in 2004, you have to turn all that money, buzz and potential into an actual win in Iowa — or at least a close second.

So Tom Vilsack is smart to get started early. The outgoing Iowa Governor declared he was running for president only two days after the midterm elections and this week kicks off a five-day announcement tour through all the states that have early primaries — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, along with his native Pennsylvania. In announcing his candidacy, Vilsack acknowledged the long odds, telling a crowd in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, that "I have always been an underdog and a long shot." He cast himself as a candidate with "the courage to create change", a phrase he invoked repeatedly in calling for an improved health care system, the end of bickering in Washington, an energy policy less dependent on foreign oil and pushing Iraqis to take control of their own security. "He may not be as well-known, he may not be as well-funded, so it's important for him to get out as early as possible," said Gordon Fischer, the former head of the Iowa Democratic Party and a Vilsack backer.

For all the obstacles he faces, Vilsack has several strengths as a candidate. Orphaned at birth in Pittsburgh and adopted and raised by an alcoholic mother, he offers just the kind of unique personal narrative that could help him connect with voters. He's been a popular governor, coming back from a 20-point deficit to win an upset victory in the gubernatorial race in 1998 — in the process becoming the first Democrat in 30 years to take the statehouse. He captured 53% of the vote in 2002 only two years before John Kerry narrowly lost the state to President Bush. He's had some major successes, particularly in increasing the number of children in the state who have health insurance.

Being from Iowa would seem an obvious advantage too, but so far, it doesn't look that way. A June Des Moines Register poll put him only in fourth place in Iowa among Democratic primary voters, lagging behind Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards. While much of the state's Democratic establishment is backing Vilsack, many elected officials and key activists in the state are considering or have already signed on with other candidates. It's a sharp contrast to 1992, when Iowa Senator Tom Harkin ran for president, and the other contenders essentially conceded the state to him. Edwards has been in Iowa so much he's essentially the second presidential candidate who lives in the state. On the day Vilsack announced, Edwards was in Des Moines to sign copies of his new book. Senators Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, all considering presidential runs, have already been in the state, as has Obama. And that's just his challenge in Iowa. As the Washington Post reported this week, Vilsack isn't even guaranteed the support from people who have been close advisers in his earlier runs for office. One former top adviser, Chicago-based strategist David Axelrod, is likely to join Obama's team if he runs.

Vilsack will run as centrist with a record of success in a red state, the exact same message that Bayh has — except the Indiana Senator and former governor can also point to his years in the Senate for the foreign policy experience that Vilsack lacks. And in terms of offering a different vision for the country, it will be difficult for Vilsack or any of the candidates to stand out, because all of them largely agree on the issues. In 1991-1992, Bill Clinton could run as a different, new kind of Democrat because many in the party didn't back him on such policies as reforming welfare and supporting a free trade agreement with Mexico. Three years ago, Howard Dean fundamentally disagreed with much of the Democratic field on the Iraq war. Vilsack says he would like to see troops out of harm's way in Iraq and Iraqis take more responsibility for their own country, a position shared by nearly everyone in America except John McCain and a few others who want to send in more troops. While Vilsack has been a leader in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, the middle-class tax cuts and push toward a balanced budget that the DLC pushes have become so mainstream and embraced by so many Democrats that those ideas were part of the six-part "New Direction" that congressional Democrats will act on when they take control in January.

But don't count out Vilsack just yet. The last two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both started as relatively unknown governors who initially polled in the single digits too, and recent history has shown that Senators have a hard time portraying themselves as outsiders capable of bringing change to Washington. Neither Obama nor Clinton has declared they are running and if only one of them does, there's a lot of room for another major challenger to emerge. Aides to other Democratic candidates are already starting to quietly knock the big two, saying Hillary can't win the general election and Obama is too green to be elected president. Tom Vilsack won't come out and say anything that blunt, but he is likely to talk about his own history of success in a swing state. By next June, when Democratic donors start cutting their checks, we'll have a pretty good idea if he can repeat any of that history on a much bigger stage.