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Vilsack kicks off long-shot campaign

The governor begins a five-state tour today to announce his candidacy for president.

Thomas Beaumont

Des Moines Register

November 30, 2006

Link to Register's online story, photos and graphic of Vilsack's five-state tour:

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Mount Pleasant, Ia. America, meet Tom Vilsack.

The Iowa governor plans to introduce himself to Americans today and ask them to tackle tough challenges - which he himself is doing as he launches his long-shot campaign for president.

The Democrat at the bottom of early 2008 presidential polls hopes the journey he kicks off today in Mount Pleasant, his adopted hometown, reminds party activists and donors of 1976 and 1992. In those years, the nation turned to once-obscure governors from places called Plains and Hope to inhabit the White House and lead the nation.

Vilsack will start outlining his vision for America during a speech at 9:30 a.m. today at Iowa Wesleyan College, not far from the courthouse where he practiced law and the city hall where his political career began.

"Most of all, I am running for president to replace the anxiety of today with the hope of tomorrow and to guarantee every American their birthright: Opportunity," Vilsack, 55, is expected to say, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks.

"Today is only the beginning. I ask for your support and your vote," the text says. "Together let us have the courage to create change in America."

Vilsack formed a federal campaign organization on Nov. 9 and is the only Democrat to declare his candidacy. He has said he has the tallest hill to climb of his prospective rivals, most of them U.S. senators with national profiles.

Today's send-off in the community that Vilsack served as mayor and represented in the Iowa Senate will be followed by a swing through New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - three states scheduled to hold nominating contests after Iowa's lead-off caucuses.

Accompanying Vilsack will be his wife, Christie, and their sons Jess and Doug, both adults now.

On Wednesday night, Vilsack and his wife joined 250 Henry County supporters at Mount Pleasant Middle School, where Christie once taught, for a community potluck supper.

As a cold, driving rain clung to the trees outside, Vilsack mingled inside over meatloaf and green bean casserole with longtime acquaintances while moving from table to table. Later, he thanked the community that gave him his start in public life almost 20 years ago.

"As we travel across this great country talking about the future of this country, we're going to be taking with us the values, the stories, the inspiration, the support and the love of all of you," Vilsack said from the stage of the school auditorium.

"That already makes it a successful campaign, as far as we're concerned."

Reporters from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune and cameras from national cable news networks will be in the audience today. Traveling with Vilsack to New Hampshire will be Fox News Network and a few Iowa reporters.

The tour also includes a stop in Pittsburgh, where Vilsack grew up and was adopted as an orphaned infant by a troubled family.

That narrative, including his mother's chemical dependency and physical abuse of her son, has been a compelling element for activists who have met Vilsack. Those experiences are expected to be part of his address.

Vilsack writes his own speeches and has been hunkered down in Mount Pleasant for most of the week, editing the text of today's announcement. With about six weeks left in his second term, he also intervened this week in the stalled search for a new University of Iowa president.

Today's speech, which is expected to last little more than 10 minutes, will be a metaphor for his campaign, aides said. That is: Speak plainly and say what you believe.

"He's going to challenge the nation to talk about big issues over the course of the campaign," said Craig Varoga, Vilsack's campaign manager.

"There's a hunger in the country to do something much bigger and much bolder than we've seen at all over the past few years," Varoga added. "That's the core and the focus of this."

The roll-out will be watched by some people around the country, including donors, party leaders in key states, and national political media, all of whom Vilsack must reach in the next few days.

"The challenge when you start from Tom Vilsack's position, which is he's relatively unknown, obviously is how you develop some credibility early," said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist, who has advised former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt's White House bids.

"Someone in his position gets more out of an announcement than better known candidates because they are starting from zero."

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama rank at the top of preliminary national polls for 2008 Democratic prospects. They are followed by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who ran for president in 2004 and ended up as the vice presidential nominee.

Vilsack registers support from 1 percent in most national polls, trailing such possible candidates as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.

Top aides and experts routinely point to Jimmy Carter's success in 1976 and Bill Clinton's success in 1992 as evidence that a rural state governor can mount an effective campaign for president.

"The Democrats have a romance with finding the candidate back in the pack who they think can make it happen," Carrick said. "I think Vilsack has to tap into that sentiment to help him find the people who are going to help him raise the startup money."

Vilsack, a moderate, serves as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a post held by Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas in 1990.

The chairmanship has given Vilsack a national party leadership position that has allowed him to travel the country in the past year and a half meeting influential party activists and donors.

But former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said a Cinderella story can only be told with enough money. For Vilsack that means showing early that he can compete with candidates whose names are much more recognizable.

"The first quarter of next year, that means getting close to double digit millions, just to get out of the box, to get out of the gate," said Warner, a Democrat who weighed seeking the 2008 presidential nomination until October.

With a national fundraising organization he set up last year, Vilsack raised about $2.75 million in a year and a half, less than most of his rivals for the nomination.

Vilsack must also be ready to address critics who question a Midwestern governor's foreign policy credentials and appeal to Democratic caucus and primary activists, who do not support of the Iraq war.

New Hampshire Democrat Gary Hirshberg said he was attracted to Vilsack's record on economic and social issues when he met him last summer. Hirshberg said he was worried that Vilsack's position on Iraq was unclear.

Vilsack, who visited Iraq and Afghanistan in April, expects to say he supports a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, while maintaining a military presence to discourage interference from Iran or Turkey.

"Between the spring and this fall, he had given it skeleton structure and had in his own mind the map of what needs to be done, something immensely difficult," Hirshberg said. "At least to me it made sense."

Vilsack campaign aides would not say whether the Vilsacks will make their home in Des Moines or Mount Pleasant after they move out of Terrace Hill in January.