When Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, then the Kansas insurance commissioner, was considering running for governor of her staunchly Republican state in 2002, she went to visit Tom Vilsack, then finishing up his first term as governor of neighboring Iowa.
"I couldn't figure out how he had won," she recalled. "I'd read that he was 27 points behind his well-known Republican opponent on Labor Day , he'd just fired his third campaign manager and he was out of money after his primary. Iowa hadn't elected a Democratic governor in [30 years]. So how did he win?
"I spent two hours with him," Sebelius recalled, "and I understood. He had a better vision for his state, and he worked three times as hard as his opponent. It was just perseverance and chutzpah, and I figured if he could do what he did starting where he was on Labor Day, I'm willing to put my quarter down."
Sebelius, who beat the odds to become Kansas's governor in 2002, is a cheerleader for Vilsack's chance to become the Democratic vice presidential candidate.
Far less well known than either of the two former presidential candidates reportedly being considered by Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) along with others for his ticket -- Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) -- Vilsack is seen by supporters such as Sebelius as having qualities that would, in time, appeal to many voters.
Doug Campbell, a Pittsburgh lawyer who has known Vilsack since nursery school, says: "Tom is exactly what he appears to be. He's earnest, very hardworking, honest, loyal. He's not a rock star. Is he brilliant? No. But he is very intelligent, and he works very hard. He's always done his homework."
When Edwards and Gephardt campaigned for the presidential nomination, they stressed their humble origins -- the former from a mill worker's family, the latter a milkman's son. But Vilsack, 53, has what may be a more compelling story -- he is an orphan whose abusive adoptive mother spent years fighting alcoholism.
Raised in Pittsburgh (a key to politically vital Pennsylvania), he moved to his wife's home state of Iowa after law school and joined his father-in-law practicing law in the small town of Mount Pleasant. When the mayor of that Republican community was assassinated by a disgruntled constituent, Vilsack was recruited by the former mayor's family to run for the office -- even though he was a Democrat.
His party affiliation was part of his birthright, Vilsack says. Like many other Catholic families, the Vilsacks were thrilled by John F. Kennedy's election. As a teenager, Campbell remembers Vilsack carrying a book of political essays by Hubert H. Humphrey and says "that's where his values lie."
Since becoming governor in 1999, Vilsack has made education and health care for children his top priorities -- and often has battled the Republican legislature over the funds he has tried to direct to those programs.
Recently the state Supreme Court dealt Vilsack a setback, ruling that he exceeded his authority when he attempted to use a line-item veto to eliminate a tax cut Republicans had added to a top-priority bill of his designed to stimulate growth of high-wage jobs. Characteristically, he said in an interview: "I was not willing to jeopardize our long-term fiscal stability for a short-term victory. We'll just go back and try again."
Vilsack's stubbornness has left him few friends among the Republican leadership. Gentry Collins, the deputy chairman of the Iowa GOP and campaign manager for Vilsack's 2002 opponent, says that Vilsack has "failed as a manager of state government" and asserts that his "old-style liberal approach" would be easy for the Bush-Cheney campaign to discredit.
But Vilsack has not lost an election since he ran for class president in high school, even though he rarely has been the early favorite. As Vilsack points out, he alone survives of all the Democrats in gubernatorial offices in 1998-99.
Although most industrial unions are lobbying Kerry to choose Gephardt, the service unions -- especially the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- have warm relations with Vilsack.
In Vilsack's account of his time as governor, he has seen reduced class sizes, improved test scores and an expansion of health care coverage to include 94 percent of the state's youngsters. He has also moved aggressively on developing new energy sources and expanding high-tech jobs and cultural activities in small towns. All this, he says, within a state budget that is $300 million smaller than the one he inherited in 1999.
Three Democrats who have worked closely with Vilsack in his Iowa races use similar terms to explain his success. He is, they say, a policy wonk who pores over bills and budgets with the intensity of a trial lawyer preparing a case. But over time, he has become more comfortable -- and adept at -- translating policy into personal terms. "I think," one said, "that as he has come to terms with his own personal history, he has become more open with his emotions. But as the adult child of an alcoholic, he never escapes that sense of personal responsibility -- so he is always determined to be well prepared."
Tom Miller, the veteran Democratic Iowa attorney general, says he thinks that Kerry recognizes in Vilsack the same seriousness and policy focus that he possesses himself and that their common inclinations can overcome the glaring differences in their social backgrounds.
The two came to know each other during the past year, when Kerry made Iowa the testing ground for his presidential hopes. Vilsack announced early on that, as party leader, he would remain neutral in the nomination fight so that all the contenders would have a clear shot at winning the January caucuses.
But his wife, Christie, a formidable campaigner in her own right, endorsed Kerry shortly before the voting -- a major boost to what turned out to be a critical victory. The governor endorsed soon after the caucuses.
Iowa, with seven electoral votes, is a swing state, which George W. Bush lost by about 4,000 votes in 2000. It borders two other swing states -- Wisconsin and Missouri -- and has cultural ties with all of the Midwest.
But the case for Vilsack rests less on his geography than on judgments of his character and the belief of his advocates that he would offer reassurance to voters trying to gauge whether Kerry and the Democrats are plausible custodians of the White House.
One longtime adviser says, "He's not the obvious choice, and there are risks." Even though Vilsack has begun to take more of a national role as head of the Democratic Governors' Association, raising funds and offering campaign help for other candidates, he is relatively untested. "He hasn't had the [Tim] Russert treatment," the adviser notes.
But he would not be unknown for long -- if Kerry were to choose him. "Fundamentally," says his boyhood friend Campbell, "he is a very common-sense, genuine person. He cares about the underdog. Even as a kid, he would fight the bullies in the schoolyard. He's very dogged, and he won't back down. I'd love to see him in there against Dick Cheney."