By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa, Nov. 30 -- Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) launched his campaign for president here Thursday with a jab at President Bush's leadership, a warning that America's way of life is threatened, and a pledge to overcome the country's challenges with big ideas on energy, education, the economy and health care.
"America needs a president who builds and creates, who makes our country more secure, who is bold and has the courage to create change," Vilsack told a crowd in his adopted hometown. "I will be that president."
Vilsack, who is stepping down in January after two terms in office, begins his bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination overshadowed by such possible rivals as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois . He brings to the contest the credentials of a Washington outsider and success as an underdog who appears undaunted by his lesser-known status.
Speaking to several hundred supporters on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College here, Vilsack talked forthrightly about his standing in the field of candidates. "You know, I've always been an underdog and a long shot," he said. "I've always been inspired by the stories of ordinary citizens who worked hard, overcame adversity and succeeded."
In an interview shortly before leaving Iowa for a campaign swing to New Hampshire and other states with early caucuses and primaries, Vilsack expanded on that theme, predicting that, as people get to know him and his record, he will hold up well against his rivals. "I just want to be on the stage," he said. "If I'm on the stage, I'll take my chances. I'll take my shot with anybody."
Vilsack is the first official candidate for president in 2008, but his announcement comes at a time of accelerating activity among a large cast of characters in what will be one of the most wide-open campaigns in modern history.
Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) announced additions to his staff this week as he continues aggressive preparations for a likely run for his party's nomination.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) set up a presidential exploratory committee last month and delivered a pair of speeches to conservatives outlining his vision for rebuilding a fractured Republican Party. Both he and Romney were in Miami on Thursday courting Republican governors.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) has also established an exploratory committee.
Among Democrats, Obama has been seeking advice in advance of his decision, which aides have said will not come before the end of the year. He has had conversations with prominent Iowa Democrats, and he plans a trip to New Hampshire on Dec. 10. Clinton is quietly weighing her options, and Democrats say her advisers are closely monitoring the groundswell around Obama.
Vilsack did not have his state to himself as he launched his candidacy. On Wednesday, former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) drew a big crowd at a book signing in Des Moines. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) will be in Iowa on Monday -- it will be his 12th such visit to the state, which will hold the first presidential caucuses in 2008.
Vilsack's first challenge will be to win those caucuses, scheduled for January 2008. A Des Moines Register poll of Democratic activists earlier this year showed him running behind Edwards. Vilsack said Thursday that he welcomes all challengers in the state.
"I'm confident that by the end of the process, we will have convinced a lot of Iowans that I have the capacity and the capability to do this job and I deserve to be on that stage, and I think that they will support me," he said in the interview.
He also said he will attempt to force a competition of ideas with his rivals. "There may be people with better ideas, and if they have better ideas then they deserve to win," he said.
Experience as a governor has shown to be a surer route to the White House than experience in the Senate has been. And Vilsack's advisers believe that, in addition to his record as governor, his personal story will prove compelling.
Orphaned as an infant, he was adopted into the home of a mother who battled alcohol and drug addiction and eventually abandoned her family. His mother later overcame her addictions, and the family reunited.
"She relied on her faith and her family and her friends," he said. "And in doing so, she taught me a very valuable lesson. And that is that the courage to create change can overcome the largest of obstacles, and that community can give you the confidence and the support to try and to succeed."
Vilsack, who turns 56 this month, was born in Pittsburgh and came to Iowa through marriage. He and his wife, Christie Vilsack, settled in this small town (population about 8,700), where she was raised, and he practiced law with his father-in-law. He served as the town's mayor and later as a state senator.
In 1998 Vilsack ran for governor, won the primary in an upset and entered the general election as an underdog. He overcame a substantial deficit in the polls and was elected as Iowa's first Democratic governor in three decades. He will leave office with Democrats holding the governor's office and both houses of the state legislature for the first time in four decades.
Vilsack also has played on the national stage. He served as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, earning a reputation as a serious student of public policy and a hard-charging politician. He is the current chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, where he has helped to bridge the gap between the centrist and labor wings of the Democratic Party.
Vilsack brings limited national security experience to the presidential campaign but has said he believes that his executive experience and his ability to make good decisions outweigh that gap in his résumé.
Vilsack opened his speech Thursday with a rebuke of the Bush presidency, saying, "We have in the White House a president whose first impulse is to divide and to conquer, who preys on our insecurities and fears for partisan gain, who 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."
He charged that the country is less safe today than it was six years ago. "Our way of life, our quality of life, our national security has been compromised and put at risk by a national government that's been fiscally irresponsible and by a country that has grown far too dependent on oil, foreign oil from foreign countries, some of which despise us, harbor terrorists, but gladly take our money," he said.
He called energy security a critical challenge in the fight against terrorism and global economic competition. "Energy security will revitalize rural America, reestablish our moral leadership on global warming," he said.
On Iraq, he said it is time to begin to withdraw U.S. troops while redoubling reconstruction efforts. He said the next president must rebuild U.S. alliances around the world to combat the threat of terrorism and isolate enemies.