Vilsack: Iowa Celebrity, National Unknown

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack formally announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination during a rally, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006, at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
AP Photo
By CBS News producer Steve Chaggaris

Does the name Tom Vilsack ring a bell?

Three years ago, every Democratic presidential candidate knew him well - all of them were trying to get the support of the popular two-term governor of Iowa before that state's 2004 caucuses.

Now that he's the first 2008 Democratic presidential candidate to officially announce he's running, it seems like no one knows him.

The nation is still recovering from the power-shifting 2006 elections, yet that's not stopping several people in both parties from publicly mulling over presidential bids for the wide-open 2008 election. You've heard of some of them: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards.

But the soon-to-be former governor of Iowa, Vilsack? Even he admits he's "always been an underdog and a long shot." At least that's the way he described himself during his official campaign kick-off Thursday.

Vilsack is so under-the-radar that a Quinnipiac University poll of national political figures and potential presidential candidates released this week failed to include him in their questioning. What's even more telling is that Sen. Russ Feingold and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, two Democrats who ruled out presidential bids before the poll was taken, were included.

(By the way, Vilsack should probably hope that the folks who attended his announcement Thursday in his hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, don't take literally the lyrics of one of the songs played by a local band at the event. Before his remarks, the band offered up their version of the classic rock hit "Carry on Wayward Son," in which the original song features the lines: "Masquerading as a man with a reason // My charade is the event of the season.")

But just because Vilsack is virtually unknown outside of Iowa doesn't mean he is a complete dud of a candidate. First, he is a successful, moderate two-term governor from a middle-of-the-road Midwestern state. Plus, as the pundits love to point out, governors tend to make successful presidential candidates; the last non-gubernatorial Democrat elected president was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Vilsack could also make the argument that he deserves some credit for the Democrats' big gains in Iowa under his watch.

"Election Day was a good day for Vilsack," Drake University politics professor Arthur Sanders notes. Iowa Democrats easily held on to the governor's office and picked up two seats in the House of Representatives - eight years after Vilsack was first elected in what is usually considered a very competitive state.

Vilsack also has a very interesting and poignant life story. Orphaned as a baby, he was adopted into, as he describes it, "a loving but troubled home," and was brought up by a single father after his mother left to deal with an alcohol and drug addiction. He then made a name for himself in politics becoming mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a state senator and, ultimately, governor.

If somehow he won his party's nomination, he wouldn't be the first nationally unknown Democratic governor with an interesting life story to run for president - remember Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton?

Also, it should be noted that Vilsack's home state is where the first 2008 contest will be held. The fact he's a favorite son has its advantages in terms of building an organization and already having name recognition there. But as Sanders tells CBS News, "he has both the blessing and curse of being from Iowa" - the curse being that no matter how well he does in the Iowa caucuses, it'll be discounted. A win "won't automatically catapult him into the top-tier until he does well" in another state, Sanders added.

In fact, just because Vilsack is from Iowa doesn't even guarantee that he'll do well there. A Des Moines Register poll taken over the summer shows Vilsack fourth among Democratic presidential contenders in Iowa, behind Edwards, Clinton and Kerry.

So, in a year when there could be as many as 10 Democrats vying for the party's nomination, how does a guy like Vilsack compete with candidates who have much higher profiles.

"At some level you can't," Sanders said. "If that's what your strategy is based on, you're not going to win."

Instead, Vilsack will have to work largely under the radar, building organizations in early primary states, raising enough money to compete (at least $20 million to $30 million) and hoping he slowly builds enough buzz to emerge, much like Howard Dean - who was also an unknown small state governor with a message, money and an organization - in 2003.

The question remains: Why would Vilsack even bother with such a quixotic endeavor. To hear him tell it in his announcement speech, he blames President Bush for dividing the country and "has robbed us of the assets that have made this country great: our collective sense of community, optimism and the can-do spirit that has built tomorrow's hopes and dreams.

"Three weeks ago, Americans courageously voted to create change," Vilsack said, adding that he's running, "to bring even bolder change and greater innovation to the nation we love so much."

Sanders thinks one reason Vilsack is jumping in is that maybe "at some level, he thinks he could be a good president.

"Anyone who's running who has held elective office, they look at the people who are president and say 'I could do that job and I could do that job better,'" Sanders says.

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.