WASHINGTON — Tom Vilsack, soon to be ex-governor of Iowa, is not on many voters' radar screen as a possible next president. Even Iowans, who elected him twice to run their state, placed him fourth in a June poll rating possible Democratic candidates.
As he finishes the announcement phase of his candidacy for the 2008 race – including a Monitor breakfast Tuesday with reporters – he knows he's a long shot. He says so. But he has an answer to the inevitable question: How does an obscure Midwestern governor get past the Hillary Rodham Clinton juggernaut and now "Obama-mania," as the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, also considers a run?
"You have to work longer, and you have to work smarter, and that's what we intend to do," Governor Vilsack told the group Tuesday, his wife at his side.
There's nothing flashy about Vilsack, a Pittsburgher by birth who came to Iowa to meet his then-fiancée's family and who now considers Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, his second hometown. When asked about Obama-style charisma, he countered with his own version: "There is a quiet charisma," he said, a charisma that causes voters to say "he's authentic and real and has done well."
Vilsack also notes that among the dozen or so other Democrats who may run for president, only two are candidates from west of the Mississippi River and are governors: himself and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry did not win any Plains or Mountain West states, including Iowa and New Mexico. Most recent presidents have been governors first – positioning themselves as outsiders and as chief executives. Vilsack compared himself with former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who was succeeded last year by another Democrat – a rare feat in the South.
"My record as governor certainly matches Governor Warner's, and we did not raise taxes; we actually have cut taxes every year I've been governor," he said. "We not only elected a Democratic governor, which will be the longest period of time we've had a Democratic governor in consecutive years in the history of our state, we also as a result of efforts of the last four years elected a [Democratic] House and Senate – the first time that combination has occurred in 42 years.... We have turned a red state to blue."
A signature issue for Vilsack will be energy security. He plans to focus on conservation, renewable fuels, and using traditional materials in ways that are "cleaner and greener." He says energy and conservation can unite the country, bringing together right and left.